EEOC Guidelines: Training Employees About Workplace Discrimination

To create and maintain a professional work environment, employers must make sure everyone interacts in a respectful manner. The best way to promote respect is to provide proper employee training that carefully defines discriminatory behavior and clearly states what won’t be tolerated.

Newly hired employees should always be trained, even if this must be done individually. They must learn how to recognize forbidden forms of discrimination. Periodic retraining on sexual harassment and other common forms of discrimination should also be mandatory. If you don’t already have a hard copy or online employee handbook that clearly sets forth your workplace standards on discrimination, you can ask your Houston employment law attorney to help you draft one.

Here’s a review of the types of workplace discrimination and harassment that should be clearly forbidden in writing and during oral training sessions. After presenting information on these topics to all your employees, it’s best to also provide a bit more in-depth training to your supervisors and managers who will need to handle the discipline, complaints and investigations usually involved with reported acts of alleged discrimination.

What types of workplace discrimination are most common today?

  • Treating others differently due to their race, skin color, ethnic background or country of natural origin. No job applicant or employee should ever be treated unfairly due to any of these facts or traits. When investigating this type of claim, you may need to privately admonish and inform the wrongdoer that such behavior is legally forbidden and can lead to dismissal. (In egregious cases, immediate firing may be required.) Employers should keep detailed notes about all such complaints and formal reprimands. It’s wise to always have disciplined employees sign and date forms indicating that they’ve been warned that additional acts of discrimination may lead to dismissal. All employee files and complaints must be kept safely locked up and only accessed by a few managers;
  • Discrimination based upon a person’s sex including sexual harassment or current pregnancy status. All workers must learn to respect their coworkers, regardless of another employee’s sex. Stay open to questions and provide answers that are clearly supported by your company’s anti-discrimination policies;
  • Disability status. Regardless of whether someone was born with a physical disability or acquired one later in life, every effort must be made to help that person handle his/her job, unless doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. (Requests may often involve making facilities more accessible or changing an employee’s work schedule so it will interfere less with a medical disability);
  • Age. When workers are young, it’s hard for them to believe that age discrimination is real. However, as they grow older, they’ll start noticing how the most desirable promotions are often given to younger staff members – and not to older workers. And older workers often find themselves in the groups being laid off when a company claims it’s going through hard times. This type of discrimination is often self-defeating since older workers often: (1) have excellent problem-solving skills due to all their experience, (2) usually enjoy learning new skills and helping to train newcomers – and (3) often have the lowest rates of absenteeism due to their dedication to their employers;
  • Religion. Sadly, although most American adults know that one main reason this country was founded was to extend religious freedom to all citizens, too many people today treat coworkers with disrespect when they appear to follow faith practices different than their own;
  • Discrimination related to an employee’s genetic information (or family medical history). Both state and federal laws forbid this type of discrimination. One of the federal laws is named the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). Title II of GINA specifically prohibits workplace discrimination based upon an employee’s genetic information. Employers must exercise great care when hiring the employees who must handle all company medical insurance and claim forms. These workers must understand that any knowledge they accidentally gain about an employee’s medical condition(s) or family history must be held in the strictest confidence.

Special training for company managers and supervisors

An additional, separate training should be periodically presented to these employees to be sure they fully understand how to handle every discrimination complaint they receive. After all, they will be playing a key role in investigating these complaints and making sure they handle their responsibilities in strict compliance with all state and federal laws.

Be sure that these higher-level employees have made the complaint process both easy and transparent for workers. It’s their job to remind employees that they will not be punished for coming forward with claims – or acting as witnesses for those who are filing claims.

In your special training program for these workers, be sure to also address the following topics.

  • Managers must understand that detailed, investigative notes must be kept. When an employee files a complaint based on alleged acts of discrimination or harassment, you need to obtain information about each time such acts were committed and get the names of all possible witnesses. Dates and times are crucial bits of information. If more than one person was involved in the illegal behavior, be sure to write down all names – and speak with each of these individuals separately;
  • All managers and supervisors need clear definitions of what can constitute a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee. It’s a good idea to review the content of your training with your attorney prior to making this type of presentation;
  • Retaliation. Inform higher-level employees that all forms of retaliation for reporting alleged acts of discrimination or harassment are strictly forbidden – and can result in liability for those involved;
  • Acceptable religious attire, hairstyles and practices. Explain to your managers what type of religious clothing is fully acceptable in the workplace. You should also tell them which hair or beard styles should be allowed, based upon an employee’s stated religious beliefs. When possible, managers should try to accommodate time off from work to attend special worship services – if doing so won’t cause an undue burden on co-workers or the company;
  • Sexual harassment. Supervisors and managers must be fully acquainted with all the types of language and behavior that can constitute sexual harassment. Remind them that offensive cartoons or signs related to sex should never be posted or circulated at work;
  • Privacy is crucial to all investigations. Remind all of those involved with investigating any claims of discrimination or harassment that they must never share any information they gain with non-investigative employees – or anyone outside of the company – since confidentiality is critical for everyone.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you have any questions about how you’ve drafted portions of your employee handbook, especially sections addressing discrimination and sexual harassment. We can provide you with useful advice and are always available to help should an employee file a claim with you or the EEOC alleging any form of workplace discrimination.

Handling Employee Requests for Religious Accomodations

Whether you’re running a large corporation or a small business, it can be challenging to properly reply to employee requests for religious accommodations. However, if you’ll listen carefully to what’s being asked and thoughtfully weigh all your options, you should be able to respond appropriately. As the employer, it’s your duty to strike the proper balance between honoring a legitimate request and prioritizing the most crucial needs of your business.

Here’s a brief overview of the key topics involved with honoring religion rights in the workplace after receiving employee accommodation requests.

Employment discrimination based on religion is forbidden by law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based solely on religion. Upon first learning about this statute, most employers ask how the term “religion” is defined — and exactly when they must fully abide by this law. Stated succinctly, employers should try to make reasonable accommodations based on religious beliefs (and practices) whenever doing so will not place an “undue burden” on their businesses.

How does the EEOC define “religion?”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides a very broad definition of “religion” that is not limited to just well-known faith groups such as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. The EEOC states that the employee’s beliefs can be new or uncommon – and separate from those espoused by any formal group or sect. The practice the employee wants to honor must be sincerely held and of a clear, religious nature – as opposed to a mere political, social or economic philosophy.

What are some of the most common types of requested religious accommodations?

  • Permission to attend special worship services during normal work hours;
  • A request by a female employee to wear a headscarf or “hijab” at work;
  • Permission for a male employee to wear his hair long – in keeping with religious beliefs. Some Jewish men also ask to wear “skull caps” or yarmulkes on special religious days;
  • Time off on specific “holy days” – or a day like Saturday or Sunday, in keeping with faith practices;
  • A flexible work schedule that allows for “breaks” during which specific types of prayers may be said;
  • A request to be exempted from specific job tasks, such as dispensing birth control pills or handling specific duties that help advance war efforts. (Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faith communities might make these types of requests);

While this list is not intended to be exhaustive, it should provide you with a better understanding of the types of accommodations employees may request.

How can employers determine if a request will cause an “undue hardship”?

After making sure you understand the specific nature of each request, you’ll have to decide if your business can still function smoothly if you grant the accommodation. Here are some questions you should be sure to ask yourself.

  • Will making the accommodation prove unduly expensive? For example, what should you do if an employee asks to take off work to attend a Good Friday church service? Will saying “Yes” leave a key job or position uncovered in the person’s absence? Do you have any other employees willing to cover for the individual needing to leave? If no one volunteers to help, can you afford to pay any overtime to a qualified employee (or an outside temp) to cover the position?
  • Is the request one that might violate your company’s legitimate health or safety rules? If so, can you find another way to work out the situation? For example, if a young man wants to wear his hair long in keeping with his stated religious beliefs – can you simply let him wear his hair tied in a ponytail during work hours — or keep it hidden under a work hat that you provide or consider acceptable?
  • Will it prove to be too disruptive to your regular office routine? Should you allow an atheist (or employees of different faiths) to wait and enter meetings normally started with Christian prayers after those prayers have concluded? It might be simpler to just pray with those of like mind at a different time on certain days. That way, you can probably avoid ostracizing those who have said that they don’t wish to take part in your specific prayer practices.
  • Is there a danger that granting one employee’s request to honor faith practices will lead to too many other, similar requests? The EEOC urges employers to consider all requests made very seriously — and to try and accommodate them whenever it’s reasonable. Few employees are likely to abuse this type of request. However, you might consider placing a statement in your employee handbook that all such requests must be made on a sincere basis — and that they’ll probably be granted if they don’t cause any great disruption in the company’s normal workflow – or provision of critical customer services.

All employers, managers and supervisors must avoid all forms of workplace retaliation

Unfortunately, there will always be a few biased supervisors or managers who may resent having to make any religious accommodations. Therefore, you must make sure that once any requests have been granted – the employees are not “punished” in any way.

For example, you cannot force all employees requesting permission to wear special religious clothing, hats or scarves to sit in a back office together where they’ll be less visible. That could be viewed as “retaliation” and make your company vulnerable to a lawsuit based on discrimination.

Conclusion

Be sure to treat every employee’s request for a religious accommodation with sincere respect. And always keep detailed notes in each employee’s file as to why you did or did not grant a request in case there are any later lawsuits. (For example, if you decide a request will prove to be too costly or place an “undue burden” on your business – make sure you can prove that with adequate facts and figures.)

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys with any questions you may have about making workplace accommodations based on religion (or disability). We can provide you with the legal guidance you’ll need to keep your business running smoothly.