Preventing race-based harassment in the workplace during COVID-19

Almost all Kentucky employers are governed by state and federal laws that protect employees and job applicants from illegal discrimination – and harassment – based on protected characteristics that include race, color and national origin. The media has widely reported that people of Asian descent have been the targets of verbal and even physical abuse because the new coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China.

Unfortunately, this harassment could spill over into the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – the main federal agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws – released on April 23 updates to its guidance for employers to prevent pandemic-related harassment.

(This link to the technical assistance contains valuable links to a variety of EEOC-provided anti-harassment materials for employers.)

Clear and firm communication is key

Whether a workplace provides essential services and has remained open, or will reopen in the future, communication about the illegality of workplace harassment based on race, color or national origin directly to employees is important to set expectations and raise awareness of the current coronavirus-related trends. Directly addressing this phenomenon and setting expectations that employees will not engage in such behavior raises collective awareness and acts as a deterrent.

Communication can be in writing or oral, either in individual or group meetings with management. Posters are another way to keep the current concern on everyone’s radar and emphasize that harassment will not be tolerated.

Create a safe anti-harassment culture

Hopefully, a culture that has no tolerance for harassment is already established, but this is a time to reemphasize it or articulate a new effort to emphasize this priority. The anti-harassment policy may already be available to employees either as freestanding, written policies or within employment manuals. Providing examples of what harassment may look like is helpful for increasing understanding of the range of behavior that can be harassing as well as educating employees on what should be reported.

Tell employees what to do

Make it clear how to report harassment to management and that no retaliation will follow. The EEOC suggests designating someone to receive reports who is not in a supervisory position over that employee or allow reports to go to anyone in management. Then, the employer should provide clear direction to managers and supervisors about what steps to take in response to a complaint so that it is investigated and receives an appropriate response.

Make disciplinary policies clear

The employer should communicate upfront the potential ramifications of engaging in harassing behavior, depending on the severity. For example, an offender could receive an official reprimand, go through additional training, attend counseling or even face suspension or termination. Communicating the negative consequences of the behavior to the entire workforce may help to avert acts of harassment.

Preventing harassment at work based on Asian descent, origin or appearance is particularly important in this stressful time, but employers have many tools to set policy and create a lawful, positive, inclusive culture.


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