By Cynthia Thomas Calvert
Just My E-Pinion
My HR training sessions are covering a new topic these days: family responsibilities discrimination (FRD). Whether I’m talking to HR professionals or line supervisors, I find few are aware of their companies’ growing exposure to FRD lawsuits, and even fewer are aware of the relatively easy steps they can take to minimize their companies’ exposure.
FRD is employment discrimination based on family care giving responsibilities. It manifests itself in many ways, including: refusing to hire pregnant women; not promoting mothers of young children; punishing male employees for taking time off to care for their children; and giving undeservedly negative evaluations to employees who take leave to care for aging parents.
FRD lawsuits may arise at any level of an organization and be brought as sex discrimination cases, family and medical leave retaliation, breach of contract, and other types of lawsuits.
It’s a growing issue. While, overall, employment lawsuits are declining, FRD cases increased 400 percent in the last decade. And employees are winning. Plaintiffs succeed in a much higher percentage of FRD cases than in other employment cases, and verdicts average about $100,000 – although many top $1 million.
It’s typically caused by unexamined bias about how employees with family care giving responsibilities will or should act. For example, a supervisor may assume that a pregnant woman will have poor attendance or that a man taking care of his dying father will be distracted, so the supervisor might encourage such employees to quit. Or the supervisor may believe that a mother should be at home with her children, and deny her promotion to a position that requires longer hours or even terminate her. The good news about bias of this sort is that once it is brought out into the open, its ability to affect personnel decisions is lessened significantly.
Education is the key to prevention. Here are four easy-to-implement steps you can take to minimize your company’s exposure:
1) Adopt an anti-FRD policy. “Family responsibilities” can be added to your company’s existing anti-discrimination policy, or you can create a stand-alone policy. Sample policies are available at the WorkLife Law web site.
2) Examine your other policies to ensure they don’t discriminate against employees with family care giving responsibilities. Look at attendance; promotion; flexible work arrangements; compensation; and performance evaluations.
3) Train your supervisors. Some assumptions to cover and discredit: employees have to choose between families and getting ahead in their careers; mothers are less competent; pregnant women usually quit after having their babies; mothers won’t want to travel or work overtime or have added responsibilities (such assumptions can lead to dead-end positions); men actively involved in raising their children are not “real men” or not team players; employees on flex-time aren’t committed to their jobs; and employees who care for sick spouses or elderly parents are too distracted to be productive. This type of training can be incorporated into existing diversity training if the trainer is sufficiently versed in FRD.
4) Help your company understand the business benefits of retaining employees who have family responsibilities. Supervisors often are quick to assume that they’d rather have an employee free from family responsibilities than to have to deal with demands on their workers’ attention. They need to understand how expensive it is to lose trained employees, and the impact high turnover has on morale, productivity, and customer satisfaction. Additionally, they should be aware that the pool of employees without family responsibilities is shrinking as more baby boomers find themselves caring for their parents and more Gen X and Gen Y males are actively involved in their family lives.
Finally, they need to recognize that family responsibilities may exist for only a few months or years, but an employee’s usefulness to a company can span profitable decades.
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