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Workplace Discrimination and Harassment: Are Your Managers Ready?


New lawsuits from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) –  such as the recent sexual orientation cases covered by the mainstream media) – may have you asking: What are some things that my managers can do to avoid them?

Training is the answer. While it’s important for your entire workforce to understand what constitutes discrimination and harassment and how to properly report concerns, your managers should spend more time learning about anti-discrimination and harassment best practices. They’ll be the ones receiving and processing the complaints.

8 Key Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) training topics for managers

What exactly do you need to cover in EEO training for managers? Here’s a list of the key topics.

1. EEO basics

After completing their training, your managers should be able to name the protected categories under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Gender discrimination
  • Religion
  • Sexual harassment

They should also understand:

  • Retaliation discrimination (including whistleblower retaliation)
  • Disability/Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Equal Pay Act
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act
  • Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act
  • Any state or local fair employment practice laws

2. Pregnancy discrimination

Pregnancy is a condition that is covered under protection from !!! discrimination. Because it is a complex and potentially confusing focus of preconceptions and stereotypes, your managers should be well versed in avoiding pregnancy discrimination, which can extend well beyond the time parameters of a nine-month pregnancy, including family planning and lactation breaks.

3. Complaint recognition

Your managers need to know what constitutes a complaint and how to listen and respond to employees. They need to learn how to recognize when employees feel they are being treated differently because they belong to a protected category. For example, you can train supervisors to watch out for phrases like, “I feel I’m being treated this way, because I am female (or disabled, over 40, or another protected category identifier).” Your managers need to be able to recognize these phrases and understand their obligation to notify the appropriate person(s) about the complaint (typically HR), since companies have a legal obligation to investigate employee complaints about alleged discriminatory practices. It is important that managers let employees know that their concerns will be taken seriously and treated with the appropriate level of confidentiality.

4. Work accommodations

Many supervisors are unsure about the protection employees have under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Teach front-line managers what to do if employees ask for special work accommodations or time off for medical care. This may include notifying HR about the request and engaging in a conversation that conforms to the ADA’s interactive process (the legal threshold for what’s required) and discussion about reasonable accommodations. The interactive process involves comprehensively considering employees’ requests for accommodations and inquiring about possible alternatives (rather than just saying “no”) when the company is unable to meet the specific accommodation request – and keeping track of conversations in writing. This is an important but often missed topic in EEO training for managers.

5. Follow-up guidance

Talk to managers about what to do after an employee has brought forward a concern and it’s been resolved. Surprisingly, the most common discrimination charge is retaliation – a type of discrimination that could follow a previous discrimination allegation.

Train your managers to follow up the right way – continue to check in with the employee periodically following the complaint and ask how things are going. Encourage them not to act like the concern didn’t happen (even though following up on a complaint can feel awkward). Teach them to document their check-ins with employees and any other opportunities employees have to discuss how they’re feeling.

6. Practice scenarios

Your training should include more than just academic definitions. Give your managers an opportunity to think on their feet by talking through tricky scenarios. Discrimination and harassment issues can be much more subtle than we’re often aware (e.g., related to how projects are assigned, who’s invited to after-work activities, etc.). It’s an excellent idea to have small group dialogue or a question-answer session at the end of the training. Also, be sure to let your managers know who to contact when they have a situation they’re unsure about. This is usually a designated HR point person.

7. Investigation process

It’s not fun to plan for a complaint or investigation, but they’re inevitable. Your EEO training should teach managers how to follow your company’s investigation process. While this process can look different company-to-company, the basic investigation process is to:

  1. Speak with the complainant.
  2. Speak with all relevant witnesses.
  3. Speak with the alleged bad actor and review any applicable documentation.
  4. Then review all the findings to determine how the matter will be resolved and communicated.

8. Responsibility reminder

During your training, you need to make it clear to your managers that they have a higher level of responsibility when it comes to recognizing and preventing harassment and discrimination. They are held to a different standard as company leaders. They should understand that they don’t get the same indulgences as a non-manager, such as going to happy hour with employees who have an inappropriate sense of humor. Warn them against letting their credibility get eroded as a manager.

How to make it stick

To ensure your EEO training actually impacts your managers’ perspectives and behavior, you need to find ways to make it stick.

One way of doing this is providing ongoing, hands-on support to your supervisors. Your HR person or other EEO point person should check in regularly with managers to see what’s happening with their staffs. He or she should take time to ask about challenges and answer questions. This person becomes another set of eyes and ears that can catch issues before they turn into complaints or lawsuits.

You can also conduct employee surveys and periodic assessments of your managers to gain insight into how well they are delivering on their EEO training.

Get the help you need

EEO training shouldn’t be a DIY endeavor – there’s too much at stake for you and your employees. And some states (like California) have very specific curriculum content and requirements on the length of training. Most major employment law firms have EEO training packages. There are stand-alone training companies that offer EEO training, too.

Many professional employer organizations (PEOs) offer EEO training for managers and employees, as well as ongoing HR support as part of their comprehensive service package.

For more information about how a PEO can help your business, get your free e-book, HR Outsourcing: A Step-by-Step Guide to Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs).