You can't personally review every book, video or training material that supervisors distribute to employees. But it's wise to review as much of those materials as possible for appropriateness and legally dangerous sections. Then be ready to respond immediately to employee complaints. As a new court ruling shows, you can cause an expensive lawsuit by shrugging off employees' complaints about offensive content.
That advice multiplies in importance because of the huge amount of ready-to-use training manuals, pre-hire tests and other materials available on the Internet, CD-ROM and video. It's easy, and legally dangerous, to dispense information to employees without actually vetting it first.
Recent case: A supervisor gave his African-American sales rep a book on business attire, New Dress for Success, noting that the book had HR's stamp of approval. But the sales rep found some passages racially offensive, such as, "Blacks selling to whites should never wear Afro hairstyles or any clothing that is African in association. If you are Hispanic, avoid ... hair tonic that tends to give a greasy or shiny look to the hair, which triggers negative reactions."
The employee complained to the HR director, who took back the book but never mentioned the issue to the employee's supervisor. The employee soon quit and filed a race-discrimination claim. Because the company's actions essentially condoned the distribution of racially offensive material, the Pennsylvania commission sided with the employee and awarded him $614,000. (Brooks v. Viacom Inc., Infinity Broadcasting Corp., et. al., No. 200027223, PHRC, 2005)
Final tips: If an employee voices concern about the content of anything distributed by supervisors, pull the content, review it immediately and discipline the supervisor, if necessary. Also, remind supervisors that they can discipline employees for unauthorized dress or grooming if your workplace requires uniforms, safety gear or specific attire. But steer clear of attacks on ethnic appearance; it's too easily interpreted as an attack on culture and, by extension, race in general.
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