When a country's built on freedom of speech, it's not uncommon for the office to become a hotbed of speaking out. But as a recent incident at Google illustrates, there's a fine line between freedom of speech and workplace discrimination.
When a male employee at Google distributed a 3,000-word email speaking out against company practices regarding hiring women, Google responded by firing him.
The fact is that private U.S. companies can terminate employees for what they say. “There's no freedom of speech within private companies," says Yoni Levoritz, founder of the Levoritz Law Group. He practices business, civil and family law. “Employees in the vast majority of states are 'employees at will.' That means they can be fired for literally anything."
According to Levoritz, the only policies that private companies must adhere to are those that pertain to federal, state and local government laws.
“Companies can't discriminate based upon sex or religion in hiring practices," he says. “Otherwise, employees under contract typically have to adhere to moral clauses that are subjective based upon how the company wants to be seen. If an employee speaks out [against a company's ideology], the employer can fire the person."
Of course, the goal is not to experience discrimination issues at your company in the first place. Here are some suggestions for policies and protocol that may help prevent problems.
1. Build a strong anti-workplace discrimination culture.
“Avoiding workplace discrimination starts with building a strong culture foundation—and that has everything to do with the people you bring into your organization," says Heidi Jannenga, co-founder and president of WebPT, which creates software for the outpatient rehab industry.
“We intentionally hire for, and nurture, traits like service, accountability, community and work ethic," says Jannenga. “We also emphasize inclusive leadership, which means valuing—and actively seeking out—diverse experiences and perspectives."
—Joel Klein, founder, BizTank
“Candidates need to be qualified, but it's also good to be aware of gender bias and how it can be an issue, even subconsciously," she continues. "That means being cognizant of seemingly simple things—like referring to potential job candidates as 'guys' or 'ladies.' For example, avoiding saying, 'When are we going to hire that software guy?'"
A part of fostering a culture that discourages workplace discrimination is setting a good example.
Whitney Smith is president of The Smith Investigation Agency. “As an employer in what is a male-dominated industry, I strive to be an example of what I expect my staff to be," she says. “I preach inclusivity and acceptance, so my employees see the environment I'd like our workplace to be. It all boils down to 'treat others the way you'd like to be treated.' I can't expect my staff to respect each other if I don't demonstrate the same respect for them."
2. Incorporate anti-workplace discrimination policies into your company.
“Companies lose millions of dollars every year due to hate speech or cultural offenses, because actions weren't taken to protect victims of discrimination," Klein continues. "With anti-workplace discrimination policies in place, employees feel protected, and that creates a standard for employers to follow."
In order to make anti-discrimination policies known, Klein suggests having employers clearly state those policies and requiring employees to read and sign them. “When policies are written and distributed, everyone is held accountable and there's no room for excuses," he says. “This fosters a safe place for employees to ask questions that could prevent discriminatory statements and ideologies."
When Smith hires employees, part of her company's onboarding includes reading and signing pages in the employee handbook that pertain to the company's zero-tolerance policy for disrespecting clients and fellow staff members.
“Most of our staff, being private investigators, work independently, but some assignments do require that staff work together," says Smith. “It's important they respect each other and work as a team. There's no room for judgment, discrimination or disrespect in this line of work."
Having anti-workplace discrimination policies and processes already in place can help ensure a safe and positive work environment, agrees Tonya Bruin, CEO of To Do Done, a renovation and handyman service. “The policies laid out for staff in this area are the backbone of my business."
3. Encourage employees to report unacceptable behavior.
In addition to enlightening employees, Bruin's guidelines offer instructions for reporting questionable behavior.
“Employees are educated about what behavior is unacceptable and what to do if they need to report a co-worker's behavior," she says.
If an employee faces discrimination by a co-worker, Lindsay Kavanagh, digital coordinator for seoplus+, feels that reporting the incident is critical.
“In workplaces with hundreds of employees, the actions of one can be repeated and hurt many," she says. “Policies and procedures ensure that people can report incidences and feel safe in doing so."
4. Provide sensitivity training for your entire company.
Of course, employees need to understand what constitutes unacceptable behavior when it comes to workplace discrimination. Some employers find that sensitivity training is helpful in educating employees.
“We run sensitivity training for the entire staff," says Bruin. “As CEO, this gives me peace of mind that everyone's been trained properly in sensitive issues."
Klein agrees with educating employees. “To ensure that your workplace discrimination policy is understood and upheld, periodically conduct 'quizzes' or similar activities to help keep everyone refreshed," he says. “Done in a sensitive way, you could also point out noted biases and prejudices. People can't learn to fix problems they don't know they have. This will also allow everyone to open up to different perspectives and views."
5. Act quickly when workplace discrimination arises.
"If a workplace discrimination situation does occur, handle it immediately," advises Klein. "Mishandling a complaint, even in negligence, can cause a bigger problem to arise. The first step to breeding a culture of fairness is to make everyone aware of what will and won't be tolerated. Doing this immediately levels the playing field."
Read more articles on hiring & HR.