Handle With Care: Managing Diversity in the Workplace

NASHVILLE, TN—Diversity in the workplace is about more than race or ethnicity. It’s about creating a work environment composed of people with different genders, sexual orientation, educational background and varying beliefs and life experiences. What’s the key to managing diversity in the workplace? First, handle with care.

“Approximately 5% of the U.S. workforce identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and 21% of LGBT employees report suffering some form of workplace discrimination,” said Rachel Rosenblatt, an attorney in the Nashville, TN office of Littler Mendelson, a U.S.-based law firm exclusively devoted to representing management in labor and employment law. “One difference that LGBT employees face in the hospitality workplace is their interaction with the general public in the form of the customers that they serve. Other workplaces do not necessarily interact and serve the public. As a result, LGBT employees are more likely to face potential discrimination from customers in their workplace.”

Rosenblatt advises and represents employers and managers in the full spectrum of employment matters, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I frequently speak to clients, train human resource professionals and write articles related to accommodating transgender employees in the workplace and avoiding harassment and discrimination,” she said.

Rosenblatt explained that currently, there is no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT workers, although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) interprets and enforces the federal law’s prohibition of sex discrimination as forbidding any employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Many, but far from all, states and localities are passing laws to prohibit discrimination in hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination and compensation on the basis of sexual orientation, but fewer extend those protections to include discrimination based on gender identity,” she said.

If employees encounter a situation that is inappropriate or illegal, Rosenblatt advises them to report their observations to their supervisor, another member of management or human resources.

“Company policies should be clear that employees will not be retaliated against for reporting their good faith concerns about inappropriate or illegal activity,” she said. “After receiving a concern, management should investigate the report, document their findings and issue disciplinary action against any harasser or wrongdoer.”

If an employer witnesses inappropriate employee behavior, the employer should investigate to determine what happened, Rosenblatt noted.

“At a minimum, all employees involved in any inappropriate behavior should be spoken to, and the investigation should be documented. Once a conclusion is reached, an employer should assess appropriate discipline for employees, which could include a reminder about the employer’s code of conduct, a verbal warning, a written warning, a suspension or even termination,” she said. “Employers should also consider whether training is needed to address the behavior and to remind employees about the company’s policies and expectations. When in doubt, employers should consult an employment attorney to ensure that they are complying with all laws when taking any adverse action against an employee.”

For hoteliers, the onus is on them to provide a safe workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment. Rosenblatt advises that companies should make certain there are policies in place to protect employees and training opportunities to get everyone on the same page.

“Sixty four percent of LGBT individuals have heard anti-LGBT slurs and jokes at work, but only 4% have felt comfortable enough to speak up to a supervisor. As a result, LGBT employees are likely underreporting harassment and discrimination that they suffer at work,” she said. “Employers should be sure that they have policies in place explicitly protecting against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. More than 92% of Fortune 500 companies have policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 82% include gender identity protection. In addition to updating company policies, hoteliers should train managers and employees about those policies and expected behavior, and ensure that the company culture fosters an open door policy that encourages reporting.”

In addition, Rosenblatt noted that much of the recent political and social debate has surrounded transgender people’s rights to bathroom access in the workplace and public places.

“In the workplace context, federal agencies have issued guidelines stating that employees should be permitted to determine for themselves the most appropriate and safest restroom to use, and employers should refrain from requiring or deciding which restroom should be used by an employee,” she said. “Wherever possible, single-stall or single-occupant bathrooms or dressing rooms should be made available for all employees’ use.  Otherwise, employers should allow employees to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity without requiring medical or legal documentation of their gender identity.”

Rosenblatt offered this bit of wisdom: “Ultimately, successful companies commit to providing a workplace free of harassment and discrimination for all employees and celebrate all aspects of diversity,” she said. “Diversity and inclusion is good for workers and good for business.”

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