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4 Audit Angles to Prepare Your HR Team for Rise in EEOC Cases

Feb 26, 2024
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Most observers expect employment law regulators to beef up their enforcement this year on the heels of a budget boost. Deb Muller of HR Acuity offers four audit approaches to make sure your employee relations efforts are bearing fruit.

In 2023, the number of lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) saw a significant 52% increase. That’s not likely to slow down this year. In fiscal year 2024, the EEOC is ramping up its efforts with a 6% budget increase, receiving an additional $26 million in funding.

Human resources and employee relations teams can expect intensified focus and aggressive pursuit of various workplace issues, including systemic racism, as well as gender and age discrimination. Additionally, the EEOC is intent on addressing emerging challenges, recently resolving its first case involving AI bias for unfair hiring practices.

While this advice may feel a little back to basics, the best way to prepare for more aggressive litigation is to do what you can to prevent it. In other words, tackle sensitive issues head-on. For example, while gender pay discrepancies are widely acknowledged and talked about, systemic racism does not garner the same acknowledgment. Similarly, our society is still grappling with gender identity issues at work. According a 2023 HR Acuity report, most transgender employees (83%) experienced or witnessed an issue at work, compared to just 52% of employees overall.

Most of us want the same thing at work, and most employees show up with a common purpose and mission. We want to create a fair, equitable and inclusive workplace that treats all people with dignity and respect. Still, bad behavior and unfairness exist, even when it’s unintentional. Organizations must be honest in how they both acknowledge and address it. Here are four areas HR teams should audit this year:

Function or dysfunction?

In general, the employee relations function must be a mechanism for information sharing between managers, leaders and the greater HR team. If your HR organization is too siloed, teams risk missing important nuances and making decisions in a dangerous vacuum. Ask yourself some basics like is our employee relations team connected to the compensation team so that we can catch pay discrepancies? Is our team connected to the benefits team to ensure our benefits (such as medical and parental leave) are truly inclusive? Is the employee relations team connected to ERG group liaisons to stay on top of issue patterns and sentiment?

Get real on corporate culture

Nearly every corporate website has an aspirational culture section nestled somewhere in the careers or about us section. Unfortunately, the actual employee experience often doesn’t quite match up to the inclusivity portrayed during the recruitment process. Culture is a reflection of what employees experience in the day-to-day interactions they have with coworkers, managers and leaders. If those interactions frequently include systemic racism, gender or age discrimination and other forms of harassment, then it’s obvious that the company culture is toxic.

The only way to know whether or not you’re building the culture you seek is to have your finger on the pulse of authentic employee sentiment. The only way to measure that sentiment is by making employees feel safe enough to share it. If you don’t already have an anonymous channel for reporting that is easily accessed by employees, prioritize that effort in 2024. In addition, prioritize gathering feedback on your investigation process by collecting it from all parties involved.

How strong is your data?

Data is only as useful as what you do with it. HR should be collecting and using data deliberately to identify possible issues before they escalate into EEOC lawsuits. For example, your reporting data should clearly display the intersection of race, gender and gender identity so that you can quickly spot growing trends and issue patterns. Use this data to keep leadership aware of potential issues and give them enough runway to course correct when troubling workplace issues begin to surface.

Review managerial support

If HR isn’t connected to frontline employees in a meaningful way, they are setting up the organization for expensive blindspots. This is where the training and support employee relations teams create for managers is critical.

Audit the training, policies and processes that are in place for managers and answer important questions like are they aware of what is considered harassment? Do they understand what to do/not do in situations where an employee feels they have been treated unfairly? Do managers know how and when to escalate issues? Do they understand how to direct employees and teams to support resources?

While we cannot control the intent and scope of the EEOC, we can control the way our organizations prepare for a more litigious landscape. By getting the basics right — creating a fair, inclusive workplace that treats all people with dignity and respect — we mount the best possible offense, which in the end, is our best defense.