(Reposted from 04/13/2021)
Because I am an employment attorney and mediator with experience as a human resources and employee relations supervisor, employers often ask me about combatting sex discrimination and sexual harassment in their workplaces. Some do not yet know I also filed a sexual harassment and sex (gender) discrimination case against a former employer. It was an eye-opening and painful experience that has changed my indignant, one-sided view of these cases.
Gender discrimination is a serious problem that needs attention, but I now prefer not to use war language when dealing with workplace issues. It invites a defensive and hostile approach, rather than the collaborative focus on results that most of us truly want. This is possibly why we are seeing men dismiss stories about gender inequality, harassment, and discrimination or taking drastic measures to insulate themselves from potential claims. We don’t want to alienate them or for them to stop mentoring us. We don’t really want them to fear us. We want to be acknowledged for our credentials, respected as equals, and given the same opportunities as similarly situated men.
Let’s have more productive conversations, not verbal wars.
Here are some actions both employers and employees can take to reduce gender discrimination in the workplace. This must be a team effort to make the workplace better for everyone, not a mandate simply to avoid lawsuits.
- Make it easy to report concerns. Having a reporting process with a quick workflow is important, but it’s even more important to ensure concerns are taken seriously—balancing the rights of everyone involved. Zero tolerance policies are discouraged by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) because they invite errors and might discourage people from reporting incidents. Despite the harm they have suffered, employees might fear they will cause someone greater harm (e.g., job loss) than the harm done to them. Thus, they might keep quiet about hostile work environments that cause your best employees to stop doing great work or to leave. When you welcome candid conversations and commit to unbiased investigations (possibly by outside vendors), you will have more opportunities to resolve conflicts that might otherwise land you in court.
- Address inappropriate behaviors quickly, professionally, and consistently. It can be uncomfortable to tell the client to stop hitting on your assistant or your co-worker not to stereotype all people of certain genders or gender identities. But when you think of this as an opportunity to create a great workplace, rather than another limitation on fun while you’re at work, it becomes easier. You will also improve with practice. So, practice at work, at home, and with your friends—in compassionate ways that avoid blaming and shaming, whenever possible. The goal is to stop the behavior, not destroy someone who is still willing to learn. Of course, once an employee shows an unwillingness to learn and change behaviors–especially when they refuse– you must take stronger action, including termination or formal complaints and lawsuits. Regardless of how much money you think a sexual harasser brings your business, it only takes one strong claim to wipe all that out.
- Do more than the mandatory training. Your state, city, or local government might require certain training to help you reduce gender discrimination in your workplace. But this is the minimum standard. Also, it is meant to help not burden you. Do what’s required and reinforce the training ongoingly. Offer it more than once per year. Share stories you read in the news and explain how concerns can be handled better in your workplace. Talk to the people in your life who have experienced gender discrimination and listen to the full impact. Take advantage of online training, books, human resources magazines, and events discussing gender equality. You don’t have to buy a pussy hat, join a Women’s March, or walk in a Gay Pride Parade, but you can challenge yourself to understand the issues more deeply, if only to comply with the law and avoid lawsuits. At least it’s a start.