Workplace discrimination has become one of the hottest HR-related topics for employers and small businesses. Now, more than ever, everyone from small business owners to CEOs at Fortune 500 companies is committed to preventing discrimination in the workplace. And, while there are certain laws in place to help prevent workplace discrimination, many business leaders still have significant questions about what does or doesn’t constitute discrimination.

While navigating the “gray area” might be a cause of frustration, the good news is that you can prevent a lot of problems if you take time to understand how workplace discrimination is defined and implement a few simple measures to prevent it in your organization.

What is Workplace Discrimination?

Workplace Discrimination is defined as treating a person or group less favorably than another person or group due to their circumstances or personal characteristics.

It can be direct, in the form of treating a person with a particular attribute differently than a person without that attribute (i.e. not hiring someone of a certain religion). It can also be indirect, in the form of imposing a requirement that someone with a certain attribute cannot comply with (i.e. using hiring criteria that adversely impacts any protected category under the law).

As a small business owner or employer, you have legal responsibilities under the federal employment anti-discrimination laws depending on the size of your business:

  • 1 or more employees: You are covered by the law that requires employers to provide equal pay for equal work to male and female employees.
  • 15 or more employees: You are covered by the laws that prohibit discrimination based on the factor above + race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • 20 or more employees: You are covered by the laws that prohibit discrimination based on the factors above + age (40 or older).

State and/or local employment discrimination laws may also apply to your business.

Strategies for Proactively Addressing Workplace Discrimination

Here are a few factors we suggest when we’re working with a business leader to establish a plan for preventing workplace discrimination:

1. Develop a written policy that defines rules and procedures.

Creating a clearly-written policy is the first step toward preventing discrimination at work. This is just one of the reasons it is important to develop an employee handbook. Every handbook should include a policy on discrimination that every employee receives and signs an acknowledgment of receipt. Your policy should cover a broad range of potential discriminatory acts and include a protocol that outlines how discrimination complaints are submitted, handled, and resolved.

2. Establish a consistent process for resolving discrimination issues.

Resolving issues quickly and fairly is incredibly important—even if your business isn’t in legal jeopardy, a lingering workplace discrimination issue can lead to losing trust and credibility with your employees. Consistency in how you address and resolve issues shows that you expect everyone to be treated fairly and by the same standards regarding discrimination. While there is no single “right” procedure for workplace discrimination, it’s important to establish a process that fits your organization’s size, structure, and resources.

3. Continually educate employees on their role in preventing discrimination.

For most businesses, addressing the issue in the employee handbook and onboarding process isn’t enough. Some state laws require employers to regularly conduct anti-discrimination training programs. Whether you’re required by law or you want to be more proactive about avoiding discrimination, it’s important to ensure that employees are aware of your policies and procedures and know how to report allegations. It’s also recommended that you conduct a separate or enhanced program for supervisory or managerial employees, as they are often your first line of defense in preventing workplace discrimination.

4. Foster a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Discrimination thrives in environments where diversity is not valued and where inclusion is not a priority. To prevent workplace discrimination, business leaders must actively promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. This means creating a culture that values and respects differences, celebrates diversity, and recognizes the unique perspectives and experiences that each employee brings to the table. You can achieve this by fostering an open and inclusive work environment, encouraging open communication, and promoting teamwork across all levels of the organization.

5. Conduct regular audits and assessments of your workplace policies and procedures.

Finally, to ensure that your anti-discrimination policies and procedures are effective, it’s important to conduct regular audits and assessments of your workplace. This will help you identify potential areas of concern and make necessary changes to improve your policies and procedures. An audit can also help you identify any gaps in your training or education programs and make changes to better address those gaps.

Preventing workplace discrimination requires a proactive approach that starts with developing clear policies and procedures, establishing a consistent process for resolving issues, continually educating employees, fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion, and regularly auditing and assessing your workplace policies and procedures. By taking these steps, you can help create a safe, inclusive, and productive workplace where every employee is valued and respected.

Helping our clients prevent workplace discrimination

At LBMC Employment Partners, helping our clients prevent workplace discrimination and address any potential issues are things we take very seriously. Whether you’re looking to develop a formal written policy, or you want to protect yourself against discrimination lawsuits, our team is here to help.

We can help you prevent and address potential discrimination issues in the work environment. Learn more about our HR Outsourcing services.