Employment laws protect workers from unfair or biased treatment, including racial discrimination, in the workplace. Human resources sees that employers comply with these laws. HR sets compliance policies, conducts internal investigations when employees file racial-discrimination claims and trains staff in how to prevent discriminatory words and behavior from occurring.
Federal law bars discrimination in the workplace based on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability and genetic background. The law also prohibits punishing or firing employees for filing discrimination claims. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the law under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and covers employers with 15 or more workers. The agency reviews employees' complaints and investigates those believed to have merit. The EEOC advocates settling claims through arbitration before going to court. Penalties for violations can be costly for employers in fines and legal fees, so HR professionals must understand the law to see that workplaces comply.
HR enforces the law through antidiscrimination policies, which are distributed to staff in employee handbooks and on intranets. Policies outline penalties for violators and complaint-filing procedures. Some policies are zero-tolerance statements, which means that an employer won't condone racist or other discriminatory behavior under any circumstance. However, zero tolerance policies can be difficult to enforce. In a 1999 interview for a "Workforce" magazine article, "Zero Tolerance Making It Work," David Ulrich, University of Michigan business professor, said that creating a zero tolerance policy was easy, but that enforcing it is the challenge for HR.
HR managers who don't follow up on racial-discrimination complaints with an internal investigation put employers at risk for lawsuits. An investigation requires HR to interview the accuser and the accused, and any witnesses to the alleged behavior. A thorough investigation uncovers what was said or done, when it occurred and who was present. HR gathers evidence from emails, work schedules, meeting notes and time cards, among other sources. Each phase of the investigation is documented and all information is kept confidential. HR decides what disciplinary action to take if the accused party's behavior proves to be racially motivated.
HR trains managers, supervisors and employees to understand the law and internal and EEOC complaint procedures. HR offers, and sometimes requires, staff to undergo sensitivity training. Participants examine their behavior toward people they think are different or inferior and therefore unworthy of respect. The purpose of training is to eliminate discriminatory behavior to create a conciliatory work environment and lower the risk of claims. The EEOC advocates training staff, but also wants HR to enforce the law and hold offenders accountable.
The EEOC advises HR managers to promote mutual respect among workers and inclusiveness across racial and ethnic lines. The agency encourages HR to establish guidelines for making objective employment decisions that aren't based on personal biases or stereotyping. According to the EEOC, recruiting, hiring and promoting practices should follow agency standards, which call for diversifying and broadening pools of candidates to fill openings at all levels in an organization. The EEOC also suggests that HR conduct internal audits to ensure that people of all races and colors have the same advantages in the workplace.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Overview
- Workforce; Zero Tolerance Making It Work; Samuel Greengard
- FindLaw: How to Handle Harassment and Discrimination Complaints - See more at: http://smallbusiness.findlaw.com/employment-law-and-human-resources/how-to-handle-harassment-and-discrimination-complaints.html#sthash.GrvDIsDQ.dpuf
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: E-Race: Best Practices for Employers and Human Resources/EEO Professionals
Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.