Prioritizing inclusivity and promoting diversity have become important to the culture of any business. With the current political and social climate causing tension in the U.S., businesses have to be vigilant in making sure that discourse doesn’t make its way into the shop and affect its workers. But that’s easier said than done.
“It’s imperative on any business owner, regardless of which way they see it, to understand that the climate in the U.S. is tense regarding how we treat each other as humans. It ups the ante and responsibility for business owners and managers,” says Brian McComak, founder CEO and founder of Hummingbird Humanity, which helps organizations achieve diversity, equity and inclusion.
The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination commonly happens from customer to employee or vice versa. But it also happens among employees of the same company.
Many independent shops don’t have the capacity to hire an employee dedicated to human resources. McComak suggests having an HR firm and/or a lawyer ready to help if a situation arises.
However, shops can handle claims internally. So what are the steps if an employee files a discrimination claim or comes to you with a complaint about another worker discriminating against them? And how can you create an environment that is inclusive and will decrease the chances of a scenario arising?
Take it seriously and understand the specifics.
The worst thing a shop owner or HR manager can do is to invalidate a worker’s claim, McComak says. Brushing off potential discrimination can not only have legal ramifications but it creates a bad working environment for the employee with the claim and rest of the staff.
So the first step is to listen to the employee and acknowledge that they’ve been heard, even if you believe the claim isn’t valid. This is the time to ask questions about the employees experience,” McComak says. When did the discrimination happen? Is this the first time? What was said or done? Investigate the claim, not only to understand all the facts, but again to show the worker that their concern is a priority.
Determine what additional information is needed.
Usually the first step doesn’t determine enough to reach a final conclusion, McComak says. This is the time to talk with other employees about what they saw, or with the employee that committed the alleged discrimination. This may include watching security camera footage or any other sources of information that could help understand what happened.
McComak also suggests separating the employees that are involved in the incident. However, legally, it is important to not let the complainant be negatively affected. So if it comes down to an employee being moved or working a different shift, it should be the alleged party that is separated. The law is in place to again protect the complainant from being hurt and avoid claims going un-reported for fear of negative consequences.
Reach a conclusion and act on it.
At this point, there should be enough information to make a determination, not only on what happened, but the repercussions of the incident, McComak says. This could be a simple apology from the employee who committed the discrimination, or a conversation between the individuals. It also might require some sort of counseling between the parties. In severe cases, this might mean a dismissal.
The process from when the discrimination complaint was made to reaching a conclusion should be timely. That doesn’t mean rushing through the facts or skipping any steps, but don’t prolong the situation or put it off. Employees need to see that their situation is being handled with care.
Hopefully, the situation can conclude civilly and in a productive manner. But legal proceedings could follow if one party believes they were wronged. That’s why it’s important to document every step, McComak says.
Throughout the process, detail what you found and what was said. That will help shops avoid putting themselves in danger of litigation, McComak says.
Stopping Discrimination Before It Starts
Elia Rea, human resources manager for Velasquez Complete Auto Care, has never had a discrimination claim come across her desk. Rea believes there’s a reason for that.
“It’s all about culture,” she says.
Rea, who oversees 60 employees at the company’s 12 locations across Illinois, says the organization is committed to building an inclusive environment. They have employees of all different races, genders and backgrounds. The emphasis on creating a family through team-building exercises has been important, she adds.
Rea points to several types of discrimination that employers should keep top of mind. First being discrimination based on gender and second being sexual orientation.
Rea sees the latter as an issue that may rise to the fore front both in the auto industry and many industries nationwide. In many cases, identifying someone else’s sexual orientation isn’t black and white and it’s an extremely private issue.
Employers and employees should be careful not to ask or assume someone else’s sexual orientation and avoid making jokes that could be hurtful to someone of any orientation, Rea says.
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McComak recommends several things to enhance a shop’s environment, both to reduce the likelihood of discrimination occurring and handling it when it does happen.
Establish an open door policy for your employees. Create signage and an employee handbook that reiterates that discrimination of any kind is unacceptable and that it will be handled with care. But these things are only effective if paired with communication.
“Nobody’s a mind reader. Be up front and tell them that you want to hear them and have a space for that,” he says. “People forget that communication is essential for any relationship.”
Despite putting in measures and prioritizing inclusivity, discrimination may still arise. Putting in best practices will help, but be ready for a scenario to arise.
“There’s no special key to avoiding it,” Rea says. “It’s just about managing it and making sure everyone is as comfortable as possible.”