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"That's Just the Way They Are"

When people work together for long periods of time and get to know each other they often become accustomed to the behaviors of others, even when those behaviors are discriminatory or harassing. We often hear people say, “that’s just the way they are” or “you’ll get used to them, they really didn’t mean anything by it”; as if by knowing someone, it excuses the behavior. But think about the following case. A newer employee has several interactions with a senior level executive. There is no physical contact; however, the new employee reports that some comments made them feel uncomfortable. In addition, the conversations took place in an isolated location and they felt physically intimidated. When they tell other employees about their experience they are told the executive was probably just “joking” and “that’s just the way they talk, you’ll get used to it.” What are they not seeing here?

All employees need to know what discrimination, harassment, and bullying are. They also need to understand how their own individual biases can contribute to problems.

  • Discrimination: Discrimination occurs when a person is treated unfavorably due to their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, and/or genetic information. It is illegal.

  • Harassment: Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. When the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment and it is severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment that is offensive, intimidating, hostile, or abusive to a reasonable person, it becomes unlawful and is illegal.

  • Bullying: The mistreatment of others through verbal comments, actions, and/or physical contact that results in emotional and/or physical harm and is intended to intimidate, humiliate, offend, or alienate an individual or group. Bullying may not be illegal, but it is against company policy of any reputable business.

  • Implicit Bias: An automatic preference or prejudice that is unsupported by objective factors. Examples include affinity bias (similar to me), attributional bias (judgements and assumptions), and confirmation bias (reinforcement of your own beliefs).

  • Microaggressions: A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority, that communicates or projects a hostile, derogatory, or negative attitude. For example, to a non-native English speaker: “you speak English surprisingly well!”

But even as companies continue to offer training on harassment awareness, claims of discrimination and harassment continue. These are the EEOC statistics for 2019:

  • Retaliation: 39,110 cases (53.8 percent of all charges filed)

  • Disability: 24,238 cases (33.4 percent)

  • Race: 23,976 cases (33.0 percent)

  • Sex: 23,532 cases (32.4 percent)

  • Age: 15,573 (cases 21.4 percent)

  • National Origin: cases 7,009 (9.6 percent)

  • Color: 3,415 cases (4.7 percent)

  • Religion: 2,725 (cases 3.7 percent)

  • Equal Pay Act: 1,117 cases (1.5 percent)

  • Genetic Information: 209 cases (0.3 percent)

While the consequences to the victim are primary, there are also financial consequences to the company. For example, in 2019, sexual harassment claims cost employers $68.2 million dollars; this is a 20% increase from the $56.6 million paid out in 2018 and is double the total from 2014.

As employers consider how best to educate their employees on issues regarding harassment and discrimination, and note that that not all training programs are created equal. Eden King, associate professor psychology at George Mason University believes the following elements are part of a successful anti-harassment training.

  • Amount of Training: It needs to be more than four hours. Even California, a leader in anti-harassment training standards, only requires 2 hours.

  • Delivery Method: Training should occur in person rather than online.

  • Interactive versus Passive: Participants should be given opportunities to actively engage in the training by workshopping and role playing with other trainees.

Training should provide the information needed so bystanders are able to recognize harassment when they see it, and understand when it is appropriate for them to report and/or intervene. Employees need to be empowered to stand up to harassment and bullying.

So, what was the outcome of the story told above? The employee made a formal charge of harassment, even though many other employees used the excuse that “this is just how they are” and didn’t believe that the claim had merit. The company had to defend themselves, costing them both time and money and ultimately, the employee’s claim was awarded in their favor.

Employers have an obligation to provide their workforce with a safe working environment, free from harassment and discrimination. Employee handbooks should have clearly defined anti-harassment policies and include anti-retaliation provisions. Developing strong and consistent policies that are clearly communicated and used in conjunction with robust training can help your company do just that. It’s way past time to stop excusing discriminatory behavior by saying “that’s just the way they are”.


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