Protect Employees and Yourself

Preventing discrimination is a universal goal within corporate America. Companies have spent millions on policies, training, complaint procedures and entire networks of human resources and operational employees whose job requires them to guard against discrimination and address any problems that arise. Many would assert that great inroads have been made to create a more diverse, less discriminatory workplace.

But have all employees reaped the benefits of these efforts? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would say no. At the close of 2012, the commission published its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) — a must-read for any diversity executive. The SEP is meant to articulate the government’s enforcement priorities through 2016 and offers rare insight into the EEOC’s hot topics.

One of the commission’s six national priorities is to ensure companies are sufficiently addressing discrimination with populations of immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers. Read globally, we can assume it is focused on eliminating discrimination in pay, job segregation, harassment, trafficking and discriminatory policies affecting vulnerable workers. Where the EEOC focuses its attention, so too should diversity executives.

The term “vulnerable worker” is broadly defined. The concept covers the varied group of workers who might not know or understand their rights or who might be reluctant or unable to exercise those rights. This includes young people new to the workforce and immigrants new to the United States. It includes intellectually disabled workers on a production line, farmworkers in the fields and men and women at remote worksites. The common denominator is these are segments of the workforce the EEOC has characterized as underserved.

“Unfortunately, we continue to see cases involving employees who suffer sexual exploitation at the hands of their bosses,” said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez. “All workers are entitled to a workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination, and employers should think twice before assuming that vulnerable workers will not exercise their rights due to fear or the lack of understanding.” It is this concern for silent victims of harassment that prompted the EEOC’s aggressive attempts to champion their cause.

The EEOC is targeting vulnerable workers by, for example, tweeting in Spanish, launching a YouTube channel with videos in English and Spanish, and collaborating with Mexican consulates to increase access to information, guidance and resources. The commission is also taking its message to the street in a broad constellation of partnering relationships with local special interest groups and even grassroots town hall meetings to ensure that vulnerable populations know their rights.

Ignoring the problem could land an employer directly within the EEOC’s litigation crosshairs. According to William Tamayo, the EEOC’s northwest regional attorney, a company that does not have an EEO/non-harassment policy, does not conduct training or does not impose real consequences for violating its policy is, in his view, “enabling predators.” Essentially, companies need to have a culture of compliance.

As an employer of even small groups of employees or applicants who could be viewed as members of a vulnerable population, companies should target efforts to address the needs of underserved populations. Think broadly about who these workers are within your company. Communicate the company’s core values to them, including communications in other languages through multiple channels in a non-threatening way. Consider whether barriers might exist that would hinder or prevent an employee from learning and understanding the company’s core values. Consider whether contractors working in company facilities are appropriately apprised of their rights and the company’s core values. Ensure the existence of multiple avenues for making complaints, raising concerns and asking questions.

Maintaining a state-of-the-art policy that requires an investigation of reported harassment or discrimination is a critical first step. But having an effective policy is only part of the picture. Companies must confirm that the policy and all of the attendant practices are actually being observed in the field. One of the best ways to ensure compliance is training. But training alone does not create a culture. Employees must understand, from the top down, that discrimination is simply not tolerated, that it has no place in the company. The adage “actions speak louder than words” applies here.