This Day (Lagos)

7 January 2013

Nigeria: Dealing With Discrimination in the Workplace

In recent years, the rate of discrimination in the workplace has been on the increase. The global economic crisis has opened up opportunities for discrimination at work and in the larger society.

Everyday men and women are discriminated on the basis of gender, age, religious, sexual preference, racial, national and ethnic origin and discrimination against physically challenged persons. There is also discrimination against age and it is known as ageism in certain work environments such as television where there is preference for younger, more glamorous looking people to appear on the tube.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Global Report entitled "Equality at Work: The Continuing Challenge" cites equality bodies which are receiving increased numbers of complaints, showing that workplace discrimination has become more varied and discrimination on multiple grounds is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

The lack of reliable data in this context makes it difficult to assess the exact impact of discrimination at the national level as governments have failed to put in place human, technical and financial resources to improve data collection on discrimination at workplace.

According to the international agency, work-related discrimination continued to exist for many of the world's 650 million with disabilities, as their low employment rate reveals.

Although the ILO has adopted some core labour standards which centres on the elimination of all forms of discrimination at workplace, significant progress is yet to be made especially regarding gender and racial discrimination as governments have failed to implement these standards.

For example, the gender pay gap still exists, according to the ILO with women's wages being on average of 70 to 90 percent of men's. Sexual harassment is a major problem in workplaces as young, financially dependent, single or divorced women are the most vulnerable. And for mothers, discrimination related to pregnancy and maternity is still common. Also, barriers impeding equal access to the labour market still need to be dismantled particularly in Africa where there are ethnic minorities.

Rising numbers of women and men experience discrimination on religious grounds, while discrimination on the basis of political opinion tends to take place in the public sector, where loyalties to the policies of authorities in power can be a factor in accessing employment.

In addition, persons with HIV/AIDS also suffer discrimination through mandatory testing policies, or testing under conditions which are not genuinely voluntary or confidential.

Discrimination in the workplace is more than just a bad day as it takes a toll on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of employees. The feelings of hopelessness, mistrust, despair and alienation are common among people that are discriminated in their places of work

As a result, there are growing concerns on how exactly employers should safeguard against discrimination in their workplaces? And should discrimination rear its head, what is the best way to handle it?

Human Relations experts believe most employers are anxious when faced with discrimination and harassment complaints. This is because with good reason such complaints can lead to workplace tension, government investigations, and even costly legal battles. If the complaint is mishandled, even unintentionally, an employer may unwittingly put itself out of business.

They explained that if such complaint is well managed and employers follow a careful strategy for dealing with it, the likelihood of a lawsuit can be reduced and at the end it will even improve employee relations in the process.

According to them dealing effectively with discrimination is a two-fold process, which includes: the human resources (HR) manager having knowledge of antidiscrimination laws, and paying close attention to what is happening in his company.

Lisa Guerin (Nolo), in an article: 'Essential Guideline for Handling Workplace Discrimination', listed some basic rules for HR managers to follow whenever there is a complaint on discrimination or harassment in workplace.

Lisa explained that many employers had a hard time believing that discrimination or harassment could be happening right under their noses. As a result, they often fail to investigate complaints, assuming that they could not possibly be true. "Unfortunately, failing to investigate a complaint is a surefire way to land in court. Investigate every complaint you receive. Do not come to any conclusions until your investigation is complete," she said.

She noted that employees often found it extremely difficult to complain about discrimination or harassment.

According to her, they felt vulnerable and afraid and this could have an impact on the quality of their work, and it could also lead them to seek outside assistance from lawyers.

"When an employee comes to you with concerns about discrimination or harassment, be understanding. An employee who sees that you are taking the problem seriously is less likely to escalate the issue to a government agency or to court," she advised.

She stated that an HR manger might be tempted to become angry at the complaining employee for the fact that he must now deal with the specter of discrimination and harassment in his company.

She emphasised that the manager should not forget that the complaining employee was the victim and not the cause of the problem, adding that "If you allow yourself to become angry at the employee, you open yourself up to claims of illegal retaliation. You also run the risk of polarising your workplace, damaging morale, and lowering productivity".

Speaking further, she said it was against the law to punish someone for complaining about discrimination or harassment. In this regard, she listed the most obvious forms of retaliation to include termination, discipline, demotion, pay cuts, or threats to do any of these things.

She added: "More subtle forms of retaliation may include changing the shift hours or work area of the accuser, changing the accuser's job responsibilities, or isolating the accuser by leaving her out of meetings and other office functions".

"If you have an employee handbook or other documented policies relating to discrimination and harassment, follow those policies. Do not open yourself up to claims of unfair treatment by bending the rules. Do some research on the law of discrimination and harassment: what it is, how it is proven in court? What your responsibilities are as an employer?

"Start by talking to the person who complained. Find out exactly what the employee's concerns are. Get details: what was said or done, when, and where, and who else was there. Take notes of your interviews. Then talk to any employees accused of discrimination or harassment. Get details from them as well. Be sure to interview any witnesses who may have seen or heard any problematic conduct. Gather any relevant documents.

"Discrimination and harassment complaints often offer the classic example of "he said/she said." Often, the accuser and accused offer different versions of incidents, leaving you with conflicting stories. You may have to turn to other sources for clues. For example, schedules, time cards, and other attendance records (for trainings, meetings, and so on) may help you determine whether each party was where he or she claimed to be. Witnesses -- including co-workers, vendors, customers, or friends -- may have seen part of an incident. And, in some cases, documents will prove one side right. After all, it is hard to argue with an email that contains racial slurs or sexual innuendo," she said

She cautioned against discriminating complaint noting that a discrimination complaint can polarise a workplace. According to her, workers will likely side with either the complaining employee or the accused employee, and the rumor mill will start working overtime.

She added: "Worse, if too many details about the complaint are leaked, you may be accused of damaging the reputation of the alleged victim or alleged harasser -- and get slapped with a defamation lawsuit. Avoid these problems by insisting on confidentiality and practicing it in your investigation".

She also stressed the need for managers to corporate with government agencies if the employee makes a complaint with a government agency noting that there was the possibility for the agency to investigate.

"It will probably ask you to provide certain documents, give your side of the story, and explain any efforts you made to deal with the complaint yourself. Be cautious, but cooperative. Try to provide the agency with the materials it requests, but remember that the agency is gathering evidence that could be used against you later. This is a good time to consider hiring a lawyer to advise you.

"Many law firms and private consulting agencies will investigate workplace complaints for a fee. You might consider bringing in outside help if more than one employee complains of harassment; the accused is a high-ranking official in your business (like the president or CEO); the accuser has publicised the complaint, either in the workplace or in the media; the accusations are extreme (allegations of rape or assault, for example); or, for any reason, you feel too personally involved to make a fair, objective decision," she added.

In taking appropriate action against wrongdoers, she said: "Once you have gathered all the information available, sit down and decide what you think really happened. If you conclude that some form of discrimination or harassment occurred, figure out how to discipline the wrongdoer(s) appropriately. Termination may be warranted for more egregious kinds of discrimination and harassment, such as threats, stalking, or repeated and unwanted physical contact. Lesser discipline, such as a warning or counseling, might be in order if the harassment arises out of a misunderstanding (a blundered attempt to ask a co-worker on a date, for example). Once you have decided on an appropriate action, take it quickly, document it, and notify the accuser".

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