Monday, January 20, 2014

Equality in the workplace – is it really there?

Every Jan. 20 as a nation we celebrate and remember the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Most of us don’t need a history lesson to remember the passion, drive, and sacrifices that he made leading the civil rights movement. This movement changed our nation in every way, from everyday living, culture, laws and regulations and the way we do business.

Gone are the days of segregation and openly accepted discrimination – or are they? The laws and regulations passed and enacted since the mid-’60s -- the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1967, Americans with Disabilities Act, and Age Discrimination in Employment Act to name a few -- have expanded protected classes to encompass everyone in the workplace. So the question remains is discrimination still a major issue in the workplace?

The answer should come as no surprise: yes. Discrimination cases extend to behavior that doesn’t involve just promotions or raises to members of a protected class. It can encompass even casual behavior in the workplace, like comments or jokes from co-worker to co-worker.  Over the past few years I have heard more times than I care to admit occasional jokes, comments and office banter that have made me cringe in fear that they were not isolated incidents.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, my experiences are most likely are not rare or isolated. The number of cases reviewed by the EEOC was down in 2013, 93,727 cases reviewed, compared to 97, 252 in 2012. The monetary benefits collected increased, however, with the EEOC collecting over $372 million – a new record for private sector enforcement.  Despite the decline in cases from one year to the next, employers are having to pay more money to settle cases.  Companies like JC Penney and KFC recently settled minor claims for $40,000 each respectively. Ruby Tuesdays forked out $575,000 in a recent class action case.

That money doesn’t account for the time and headache involved in fighting these cases either. In recent cases that I have fought alone for small businesses in southeast Idaho, the average time for an initial decision from the Idaho Human Rights Commission was in between a year to a year-and-a-half. Luckily these cases did not result in formal investigations by the Human Rights Commission or lawsuits by the claimants, which would have prolonged the time and resources even more.

Now more than ever, it is important for businesses to take compliance with discrimination and harassment seriously. From annual training to solid policies for reporting and investigating possibly discriminatory or harassing behavior, taking the time now could save your business thousands in the future, or maybe save your business altogether.

Monica Bitrick is CEO of Bitrick Consulting Group, a small business offering customized business and management solutions. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call (208) 932-8436.