Sara Yood of JVC explains how to stay on the right side of the law.

It’s vital that business owners educate themselves about sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination – because it is illegal, and because employers are often on the losing end of these disputes.

Most often litigated are cases of discrimination, access, pay and promotion disparity, and claims based on sexual harassment and hostile-workplace issues.

Sara Yood, senior counsel at the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, says small family-owned companies in the jewelry industry are particularly vulnerable because often they don’t have HR representatives, or even formal employee handbooks stating their policies.

The average award is in the $150,000 range. These lawsuits are expensive to process and litigate and create negative morale for other employees, as well, Yood says.

Yood discussed discrimination and sexual harassment liability during a presentation organized by the Women’s Jewelry Association during the American Gem Trade Association GemFair in Tucson last week. This was the first in a series of presentations linked to WJA’s new Gender Equality Project.

What can employers do to stay on the right side of the law? Create a culture of compliance and value diversity. Make sure the staff is educated and up to date on legal issues. “Fostering gender equality, diversity and open communication is good for business,” Yood says. “Employees will want to stay.”

Key points:

  1. Anyone can create a hostile work environment, even a vendor, and even jokes can be actionable if they create a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile, intimidating or offensive. An employee may have a case if he or she believes that enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment.
  2. In the danger zone are jokes, slurs, name-calling, assaults, intimidation, ridicule, insults, offensive objects or pictures, repeated and unwelcome attention based on gender, interference with work or failure to acknowledge a request to stop.
  3. A hostile work environment can extend beyond the work place, to include off-site work events and social media.
  4. A comprehensive employee handbook is a necessity, no matter how small your company and whether or not you have an HR department or representative. “Decide you have a zero tolerance policy and state this plainly.” Every new hire must sign for receipt of the handbook. The policy should be reinforced in periodic announcements.
  5. Make sure employees know the procedure for filing a complaint and thoroughly investigate any complaint. Let them know that retaliation is not allowed. If they file a complaint, they won’t lose their jobs or be disciplined.
  6. What if the boss is the problem? “That’s when you go to an employment lawyer to find out what actions you should take,” Yood says. “Employment lawyers will usually take a case on a contingency basis.”
  7. Hire and fire carefully. Don’t ask about age, gender-based issue or family circumstances during the interview. Fire for legal cause only and maintain evidence to support your decision. Try an improvement plan before firing, not only for legal reasons but because sometimes your employee may improve once expectations are spelled out.

Resource: jvclegal.org; a template for an employee handbook is available, $100 for members; $200 for non-members.