The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced in January that 93,277 workplace discrimination charges were filed nationwide during 2009 — the second-highest level ever — and monetary relief obtained for victims totaled more than $376 million. The 2009 data show that private-sector job bias charges alleging discrimination based on disability, religion, and national origin hit record highs. The number of charges alleging age-based discrimination reached the second-highest level ever.
Continuing a decade-long trend, the most frequently filed charges with the EEOC in 2009 were those alleging retaliation (36%) and discrimination based on race (36%) and sex (30%). “The latest data tell us that, as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the Commission’s work is far from finished,” said EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru. He added, “Employers must step up their efforts to foster discrimination-free and inclusive workplaces, or risk enforcement and litigation by the EEOC.”
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It’s obvious that when the economy is weak, the number of discrimination claims increases. Perhaps less obvious, but equally true, is that in bad economic times, budgets for workplace training are often cut (or eliminated altogether), especially by smaller employers. Yet compliance training can prevent claims and thus save employers money. Historical data support a link between effective compliance training and a decline in discrimination claims.
For example, sex-based claims used to make up 65 percent of all harassment charges. Now they comprise 43 percent of all harassment charges. More specifically, sexual harassment claims accounted for 20 percent of the total charges in 1999.
Currently, they represent only 15 percent of all charges. Many people credit antiharassment training as a significant factor in the decline. It follows that if employers expand the scope of training to emphasize national origin, age- and disability-based, and other types of harassment, they will see a decline in those charges, also. Moreover, in the event of a claim, training provides employers with a critical defense.
A number of factors point to the likelihood that equal employment opportunity (EEO) claims will rise in 2010. The recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) have expanded employee protections, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent opinions in retaliation cases have expanded the scope of protected activity. Thus, training is more important than ever.
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Added value of training
EEO compliance training can have less tangible, but equally important, value. Many clients believe that if employees and customers see that you value compliance and diversity, you’ll be better positioned to retain — or obtain — their loyalty when economic activity increases.
For employers that have had to implement layoffs, remaining employees may be eager, or at least willing, learners. Training lets employees know they are valued, which can quell job security anxiety and increase employee retention.
A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that despite the fact that unemployment is at a 15-year high, 25 percent of employees will look for a new job in 2010. Research shows that training and professional development opportunities improve employee satisfaction. Recessions put a premium on good employees, and they are more likely to stay if they are receiving training and development.
Additionally, trimming compliance training can be a factor counted against you when you’re facing a discrimination charge. The EEOC or a jury may conclude that you think training isn’t important. That’s not a good thing when you’re facing a discrimination charge.
What’s an HR manager to do?
Commitment to EEO compliance training makes good business sense, but management often fails to understand the connection, especially in tough times. HR personnel have to be proactive and efficient. To be better prepared, consider taking the following steps:
- Make sure discrimination and antiharassment policies (and related training) address more than just sex (there are several jokes I could insert here, but I’ll exercise some judgment).
- Focus training on ADA compliance, reasonable accommodations, FMLA implementation, immigration compliance, and wage and hour issues — areas that are all expected to see increased claims.
- If you have to cut back, focus on supervisory training — they need it most.
- Make EEO compliance part of supervisory evaluations; it can increase pressure to comply, making training more effective and reducing the amount of training needed.
- Take advantage of technology by implementing Internet-based training for distant locations and conducting Webinars to eliminate travel and reduce lost work time.
- Retain counsel to audit training programs, but conduct the training yourself.
- Consider “pooling” or sharing training and related materials with other similar employers.
Or you can just eliminate EEO training altogether and hope for the best in 2010. When an operations executive suggests that, ask him if that’s how he runs his part of the business. He may get the point.
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Employers are aware of the bottom line now more than ever. Hopefully, shortsighted business planning won’t lead to the elimination of EEO compliance training. You would be wise to implement efficient training strategies now and to marshal the evidence in support of the economic impact EEO compliance training can have on your bottom line.