How to handle discrimination complaints without losing your nerve.

January 16, 2024

In a post-COVID work environment that boasts a high turnover rate, employers need to be aware of an increased trend of discrimination complaints. In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced a nearly 50 percent increase in new employment discrimination EEOC claims for the fiscal year 2023 from the previous year. 

Even Syndeo has seen a drastic increase in employee discrimination complaints against our clients in the last year than we had seen in the previous five years. More EEOC filings lead to more EEOC investigations that can leave businesses in a precarious position if they are unprepared. 

In this article, we will discuss the nature and purpose of the EEOC, why the number of complaints has increased, and the implications for business owners. In addition, we will offer seven steps you should take if you receive an EEOC complaint against your business. 

What is the EEOC?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces federal laws that prevent discrimination in the workplace. These laws include discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and related conditions, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. It primarily works by investigating complaints filed through the EEOC website. The commission has the authority to require businesses to take action to stop discrimination through workplace changes or lawsuits, if necessary. The EEOC also works to educate employers and employees to prevent discrimination from taking place. 

What is an EEOC complaint?

Employees or potential employees who believe they have been unfairly discriminated against can file a complaint via the EEOC website. The EEOC will open an investigation to verify or disprove the claims. Once a complaint is filed, the EEOC will assess the evidence and engage in a thorough examination to determine the merit of the allegations and whether there are grounds for further action.

Why have the EEOC complaints risen in number over the last year?

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the increase in EEOC claims. New leadership for the commission and a bigger budget line allows stricter enforcement of EEOC policies, while newly-prioritized strategic policies give a clearer indication of what protocols the EEOC is targeting. 

For 2022, the policies of emphasis included eliminating barriers in recruitment and hiring, preventing systemic harassment, protecting vulnerable workers, ensuring equal pay protection for all workers, preserving access to the legal system, and addressing selected emerging and developing issues.

According to Leah Shepherd, senior legal editor of the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), beginning in 2023 and beyond, the EEOC is looking to:

  • Broaden the definition of “vulnerable workers” to encompass those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, people with arrest or conviction records, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+, temporary workers, older workers, low-wage workers, and those with limited literacy or English proficiency. 
  • Recognize employers’ use of AI in creating job advertisements, recruiting, and hiring.
  • Focus on discrimination associated with the COVID-19 pandemic or other threats to public health, enforcing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and violations of technology-related discrimination.
  • Address overly broad nondisclosure agreements and nondisparagement agreements.

What does this mean for my business?

You must take proactive measures to prevent EEOC claims. Key steps that significantly contribute to avoiding situations where discrimination may occur include: 

  • Clear job descriptions
  • Thorough onboarding processes
  • Comprehensive employee handbooks
  • Effective employee training 

Paying attention to the areas that the EEOC is enforcing can help you minimize exposure to workplace discrimination claims. Most importantly, having clear policies that reinforce your company’s core values will help build your unique company culture and create accountability within your organization. 

Unfortunately, even with deliberate preparation, there still might be instances where individuals file EEOC claims.

Dealing with EEOC claims can swiftly become both onerous and costly. Addressing these claims, whether through mediation or the legal system, consumes valuable time. In the event that the EEOC determines your workplace is culpable of discrimination, you may be held financially responsible for implementing necessary workplace changes.

What should I do if someone files an EEOC claim against my company?

The first time you receive a notice of an EEOC claim against your company can be unnerving. But don’t worry. Having a partner like Syndeo, who has handled many EEOC claims, in your corner will help you feel at ease. Even so, you should always take the claim seriously. Don’t be tempted to dismiss or ignore it because you disagree or cannot envision the allegation happening at your organization. You will need to address the claim right away. 

Here’s how: 

Step 1: Take a deep breath.

If this is your first EEOC claim, take a deep breath and remain calm. Though it may be a new journey for you, realize that your partners at Syndeo have seen more than our fair share of EEOC claims for our clients throughout the years. We can help you and encourage you as we walk with you through the entire process.

Step 2: Notify the important stakeholders or key decision makers.

Your first call to Syndeo will help with this step. We can help you determine who needs to be involved and what actions should be taken to address the claim. 

Additionally, you will need to make a claim with your EPLI carrier. EPLI (Employer Practices Liability Insurance) works similarly to auto insurance. When you pay the deductible, the carrier covers legal fees, court fees, and filing fees of any settlement that you might come to in an EEOC claim. Fortunately, when you partner with Syndeo as your PEO, your company is covered under Syndeo’s EPLI. We can file the claim on your behalf. 

Step 3: Preserve evidence and relevant documentation. 

Preserving evidence and relevant documentation is crucial in safeguarding your position in potential disputes. It is advisable to systematically back up files and documents that substantiate your perspective, including any records, emails, or memos that contribute to the context of the matter. Additionally, ensuring the meticulous organization of your documentation not only facilitates accessibility but also strengthens the coherence of your response, should the need arise. 

Step 4: Don’t retaliate.

It can be tempting to alienate the individual bringing charge against your organization. But singling them out could lead to further complaints of how they were treated. Instead, acknowledge your receipt of the complaint and commit yourself and your team to working together to resolve it in the best interests of everyone involved.

Step 5: Find comparable employees or situations that back up your stance.

Identifying instances where an employee with a similar background, job title, or situation faced comparable circumstances and received similar treatment can strengthen your stance in the claim. Compile a comprehensive record of such instances, including any relevant documentation, to present a thorough and compelling case that supports your organization's position during the resolution process.

Step 6: Consider your goals to determine the best course of action.

There are two primary ways of resolving an EEOC claim. First, mediation can be a productive tool to handle the claim quickly and inexpensively. Establishing clear boundaries and expectations can make mediation an effective way to put limits on future responses from the individual making the complaint. 

If your company decides that mediation seems to admit too much culpability, the alternative route is fighting the complaint in court. In litigation, your legal team can present a robust defense, leveraging evidence and legal arguments to contest the allegations and protect the interests of your organization.

Step 7: Prepare the necessary responses.

If your organization needs to communicate with individuals who are not directly involved in the complaint, it becomes imperative to craft clear and transparent messaging to distribute. The communication should provide a concise overview of the situation, addressing any pertinent details without compromising confidentiality or legal considerations. The language used should be neutral, avoiding any potential bias or inflammatory language that could exacerbate the situation. If applicable, you should emphasize your organization's commitment to a fair and thorough investigation process, reinforcing the importance of maintaining a professional and respectful work environment. 

Clear and well-crafted communication not only fosters transparency, but also helps mitigate any potential misunderstandings or concerns that may arise among those indirectly involved in the complaint.

Syndeo is your partner every step of the way.

Even though staring down an EEOC claim can be unnerving, as a Syndeo client, rest assured that our experience with numerous EEOC claims ensures a smooth and efficient handling of them. Coupled with our streamlined process and robust partnership with our EPLI provider, you can have confidence dealing with the allegations. From the initial assessment to the resolution, our team is dedicated to navigating the intricate landscape of employment-related issues. This commitment is embedded in our organizational culture, ensuring that our well-oiled machine is finely tuned to address the unique needs of your situation.

If you need help dealing with an EEOC claim, contact Syndeo today.

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