Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | February 7, 2012

HR Concepts: Preventing Bias Claims

By Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA

On January 25, 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that it had received an all-time high of 99,947 employment discrimination charges in 2011. The total represents a 24% increase in the ten year period since 2001. It represents .07% of people employed in the United States.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has not released its 2011 statistics. Its 2010 Annual Report shows nearly 19,500 discrimination claims – a number equal to 20% of the EEOC claims.

Neither agency reports the number of lawsuits filed by individuals or the number of complaints filed with employers. It would be interesting to see those numbers.

The question that all of these numbers do not answer is the impact of these claims and the claims that are never filed on productivity, morale, and collaboration. There are no statistics for those categories – there should be. Those are the numbers that an HR professional needs to “have a seat at the management table.” Those numbers would show if HR has a positive impact on an employer working toward and achieving strategic goals.

Employers have an affirmative obligation to prevent discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment. In California, employers are expected to take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring. If it does occur, they must take effective action to stop it and to correct any effects of it.

The obvious steps toward preventing discrimination and harassment are a policy, posters, and training. Most employers do those things, but the number of complaints continues to rise. What else can be done? In two words, a lot!

Preventing harassment and other forms of discrimination starts with the three pillars of successful program planning – policies, systems, and practices. The policy sets a clear goal. A system provides a budget and other resources necessary to implement the policy. A practice is what leaders and followers actually do in the workplace day in and day out. Policies and systems are usually in place. Practices provide the greatest opportunity for improvement.

In one organization, the HR Manager opened the bi-annual AB1825 training for supervisors by saying, “We are here because the law requires us to be here.” In another organization, the HR Manager opened the training by saying, “We are here because we want to reinforce your role in making sure this is a good place for everyone to work. We want to be sure that you understand that it is your responsibility to assure that every member of our team is treated with dignity and respect.” Which organization do you think had the fewest harassment complaints?

One manager returned from an equal employment workshop and announced to a staff meeting, “I had to waste my morning at another stupid EEO class. Let’s just get through the highlights of our staff meeting agenda so I can get back to my desk.” Another manager returned from a similar class and called a special staff meeting. The manager started the meeting by saying, “I attended a workshop this morning where I was reminded of the principles behind our equal employment policies. I want to share what I learned with you and remind you of how important these policies are to me as your manager.” Which manager do you think had the highest productivity and the lowest turnover on their team?

The moral of these two examples is that prevention is not in the PDF of a policy. It is not created with thumb tacks that hang an enforcement agency poster on a wall. It is a series of consistent, sincere, and visible practices that send a message.

Practicing prevention requires a focus on a fundamental human behavior principle – people do what they are rewarded for doing. Unfortunately, however, when people do practice harassment and discrimination prevention they rarely receive any reward. Do you think for example, that either of the managers who did the right thing in our two previous examples received any sort of recognition or positive reinforcement from their bosses?

Organizations audit finances. They prepare for and conduct safety, security, ISO and other inspections. They rarely audit “people practices.” They should. One CEO scheduled a meeting with the Executive team. The VP of HR facilitated a discussion that led to a list of questions about creating and maintaining a respectful workplace environment. Each executive was assigned to visit corporate locations around the country. Their visit focused on getting answers to the list of questions. They then reported back to their colleagues on their findings.

More often than not, prevention hinges on little things, not big things. Names provide a simple, but powerful example. Names are important to people. When they are used properly, they symbolize respect and inclusion. One employee had a name that was a difficult for co-workers to pronounce. The employee’s manager simply asked, “Please teach me how to say your name correctly.” The employee was honored by the request. Once the manager learned to say the employee’s name correctly, the manager corrected others when they mispronounced it. In a short period of time, everyone pronounced it the right way.

The old saying, prevention is the best medicine, holds true for an HR professional working to create a respectful workplace environment. Prevention costs less than enforcement. It is more effective. The question then becomes, What practices can you implement in your organization to prevent discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment? What steps can you take to measure, reinforce, and reward practices that result in prevention? It is never too late to start.

Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA, designs and presents on-site seminars and workshops for front-line workplace leaders. He provides coaching support for supervisors and supports HR professionals through special projects to help their organizations achieve strategic goals. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at



  1. Great article Mike, I could not agree with you more.
    We should reward folks who do the right thing, and continue to remind managers that all staff should be treated with “dignity and respect”.

    This should be a standard of practice; not an exception.

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