Preventing Workplace Race Discrimination
Racism remains a nationwide problem, and race discrimination allegations appear in many employment claims against United Educators (UE) members. Asian Americans have faced racist violence at much higher rates recently, with the New York Police Department reporting that anti-Asian hate crimes jumped 1,900% in the city from 2019 to 2020.
It is critical that K-12 schools, colleges, and universities continue to focus on preventing workplace discrimination.
- Behavior, words, or actions
- Based on prejudices, stereotypes, or racist beliefs
- Treating an applicant or employee differently, unfavorably, or unfairly based on that person’s race, ethnicity, or personal characteristics associated with race (such as hair texture, skin color, or certain facial features)
Preventing race discrimination helps build community and reduce liability from lawsuits by employees. Creating a culture of respect that doesn’t tolerate racism not only improves the atmosphere on campus, but also can help your institution attract and retain employees.
Take these actions to help prevent race discrimination for your campus workforce.
Fix Policies and Procedures That Perpetuate Systemic Discrimination
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) places special emphasis on combating systemic discrimination and the policies and practices that perpetuate it. Review your institution’s policies and practices with an eye for whether they involve systemic discrimination, even unwittingly.
Sometimes the discriminatory impacts of policies are obvious, but more often it takes effort and analysis to identify inequities inherent in the practices. This effort toward reducing systemic discrimination will help protect your employees and reduce institutional liability.
Some institutions assume they are immune to racism because staff are kind or have received anti-racist education. UE’s claims show that good intentions aren’t enough to prevent discrimination or to defend your institution if it occurs. Actual evaluation and change are necessary. Ensure policy analysis and reform experts — either external consultants or experts on your campus — conduct the analysis. Have people of color participate in the process. Give special scrutiny to policies related to background checks, “no-fault” attendance benefits, English-only rules, and waivers that may prevent employees from filing complaints or helping the EEOC. Update policies to correct problematic areas you identify.
Additionally, schedule regular audits of your policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment so that all state and federal protected categories are included and information about complaint channels is regularly updated. Always consider race discrimination together with discrimination or harassment based on any other protected category, as an employee may be the victim of more than one type of discrimination, bias, prejudice, or harassment. Consider including additional reporting options, such as a bias incident report system.
Review systems in place for enforcing these policies to ensure they function as designed and adequately protect your workforce. Institutions that don’t enforce their policies risk even greater liability if a discriminatory incident occurs. Fully investigate all reports of discrimination and ensure proper discipline follows where merited. Document all investigatory steps, discipline enacted, and other responses to the complaint.
Even if the behavior complained of isn’t illegal, corrections or consequences to employees may be necessary. For example, certain rude or insulting comments may not be illegal, but they may go against your workplace civility policies or standards. Consistently following policies and imposing appropriate consequences for violations is necessary for the policies to remain effective and impactful.
Improve Recruitment, Hiring, and Promotion Practices
The EEOC notes that a common area for systemic discrimination is in human resources practices, especially recruitment, hiring, and promotion. Improve your institution’s practices and help reduce potential liability by focusing on these areas, beginning with recruitment. Implement practices to recruit a diverse pool of both internal and external candidates for all job openings. Review your current practices — especially candidate selection criteria — to determine if they disadvantage or disproportionately exclude certain racial groups. Determine where problems may exist by collecting and analyzing data related to your hiring practices.
Determine interview questions and criteria for evaluation of candidates in advance of candidate selection. These should be neutral and objective, so your institution avoids evaluations based on subconscious prejudices or biases. Consider working with legal counsel to choose appropriate inquiries, especially if your analysis reveals the current questions have a biased or unfair impact.
Use this as an opportunity to also review your benefits and pay packages. Conduct a similar review of your promotion practices and adjust your performance review and promotion process as needed to ensure they are race neutral and equitable.
Create a Culture of Respect Through Education and Training
Culture shifts can’t happen without education and training for all employees. Train everyone on your institution’s race discrimination and harassment policy. Inform employees about all changes underway.
Training also should include education about:
- All updated policies
- Relevant discrimination laws
- How to identify race discrimination and harassment
- Steps for addressing or intervening in a harassment or discrimination situation as it unfolds
- Reporting options within your institution
- Prohibitions on retaliation
Invest in educational opportunities for staff to learn about unconscious racial bias. For example, educate employees about microaggressions, which are brief comments, behaviors, or actions that communicate negative attitudes about a protected category, such as a person’s race. Teach staff how to identify and stop microaggressions and consider implementing a policy to eliminate them.
Be open to employees’ input about their experiences with discrimination. Gather this information through listening sessions, climate surveys, and anonymous reporting tools, and put a plan in place to address issues that are raised. Consider the impact of bias and systemic discrimination on your staff and offer support to employees who are impacted. Publicize employee wellness benefits and consider organizing employee resource (affinity) groups if employees are interested.
Fund workshops and other opportunities for employees to learn about anti-racism and racial justice. Buy-in from staff will help unify the workplace and improve the likelihood that positive changes are understood, welcomed, and embraced. Encourage your school’s top administrators to champion the anti-discrimination policies and efforts so it is clear they are an institutional priority.
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About the Author
Christine McHugh, Esq.
Senior Risk Management Counsel
Christine’s areas of expertise include employment law, sexual assault prevention, protection of minors, traumatic brain injury, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Before joining the Risk Research team, she handled UE liability claims for several years. She previously practiced employment and higher education law.