Retaliation in the Workplace Exceeds Race-Based Claims for First Time

yelling at work In an ideal world, everyone would just get along. There would be no bullies at schools or shootings at supermarkets, and of course there wouldn't be any conflicts in the workplace. But, unfortunately, in any place or situation where you mix together a lot of different people and their personalities, you are bound to occasionally encounter some issues.

Just ask Sandy Peddicord. She suffered from workplace demotion, harassment, and abuse because she spoke out about the discrimination that she and another woman experienced at Housby Mack Inc., under the hands of the owners and CEOs, Kevin and Kelly Housby.

According to an August 2010 story about Peddicord that appeared in the Des Moines Register, "for two years her then-bosses gave her unwanted hugs and kisses to her forehead. They made unwelcome comments about her body. The office was rife with computer porn. A boss once licked her office window."

From 2006 until 2008, Sandy worked on a daily basis in this type of crude environment, before being promoted to vice president of marketing. Only four months later, she was fired outright for what the company claimed were financial reasons -- and not because she spoke up for another female employee, Jamie Thompson, who was fired in 2007 only two weeks after letting her bosses know that she was pregnant.

A growing problem

Peddicord is part of a larger population of informed people who are speaking out and saying that something is terribly wrong with today's workplace environment when bosses can harass their employees. The Des Moines Register article also says that "Kevin Housby [once] introduced her to the entire room as the woman with the largest breasts at the company."

These kinds of acts are gaining increasing notoriety: In 2010 the EEOC received more retaliation claims than race claims for the first time ever. A recent EEOC press release states: "The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced that private sector workplace discrimination charge filings with the federal agency nationwide hit an unprecedented level of 99,922 during fiscal year (FY) 2010, which ended Sept. 30, 2010."

This means that more people complained about being fired, demoted or harassed at work after speaking out against discrimination of some kind than people who lodged complaints about race.

Some reasons why

According to Stephen M. Paskoff, president and CEO of ELI, Inc., an ethics and workplace behavior training firm in Atlanta, there are a few reasons why more and more people are filing retaliation claims.

  • Retaliation encompasses many different types of complaints. "While race is one category of discrimination, retaliation can result from alleged discrimination across multiple areas, such as race, sex, religion, national origin, and color."
  • Economic stress. "Times are tougher economically these days and more unpredictable in terms of employment, so "when people feel they are mistreated or that their jobs are in jeopardy, it may cause them to add retaliation to their claims."
  • Poor preparation. "Employers and their managers are often ineffective and ill-prepared to deal with complaints of discrimination in the workplace."

"Employees are more assertive about complaining about perceived wrongs," today too, says Ron Chapman Jr., of Olgetree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC. Not to mention the fact that filing out a retaliation claim is, "easier than filling out forms at the doctor's office.

"The entire process takes about 10 minutes," Chapman says. Also, there does not have to be any actual evidence of retaliation in order for someone to submit a complaint with the EEOC.

Measures not always followed
Obviously no company wants to be sued, and yes, there are company measures in place to prevent the filing of lawsuits by disgruntled employees. According to Piper Hoffman, a former partner at Outten & Golden LLP and employment law blogger, "many employers, including most of the larger ones, have formal policies and sometimes even trainings for managers about retaliating against employees who complain about illegal discrimination -- but that doesn't mean that managers always follow the rules."

To some degree, it seems that dealing with claims of discrimination are part of the cost of doing business, especially for larger companies. Chapman points out that " the more employees a company has, the more likely it is that that company will receive a complaint from an employee about perceived wrongdoing."

The good news in all of this is that the increase in retaliation allegations will not affect hiring patterns in the future, most experts say. "Employers will hire as many employees as they need and can afford," says Hoffman.

Advice for employers

What companies should gain from this information is that the company culture they create touches all parts of their business and all their employees. "Organizations need to make a commitment to changing their workplace culture so managers welcome and address issues rather than automatically assume the person who raises the complaint is a troublemaker or wrong," says Paskoff.

While a positive company culture alone cannot prevent the Sandy or Jamies of the world from having bad bosses, it does put us one step closer to a more ideal workplace.

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