Avoid Discrimination Suits with Gender Talk

Connie Glaser

As Wal-Mart learned at a steep price, gender discrimination lawsuits mean serious business. The largest retailer and largest employer is the subject of the largest employment discrimination case in the nation’s history. If the company is found guilty, the damage could cost Wal-Mart billions.

In recent years, many corporations have learned the hard way that gender differences and conflict can create tremendous liability—such lawsuits are costing corporations big bucks. Boeing agreed to pay $72.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by female employees asserting that they were paid less than men and not promoted as quickly. Wall Street giant Morgan Stanley negotiated a $54 million settlement to head off a class-action suit that made similar allegations.

At Dresdner Bank in New York, six female employees filed a $1.4 billion discrimination suit alleging that a female director was forced to leave a dinner celebrating the closing of a deal so male colleagues could go to a strip club. One female VP was told by male colleagues that young women were hired based on appearance because the men wanted eye candy in the office.

As women gain confidence from high-profile cases, claims are likely to surge. Certainly lawsuits are bad for morale—and for the bottom line. Yet, this is not a one-sided dialogue. Men have complaints too. At Northern Arizona University, 40 white male professors were awarded $1.4 million in raises and back pay in a discrimination suit. They argued the university had discriminated against them by giving raises of up to $3,000 to minority and female professors, not to white men.

Indeed, reverse discrimination has become an issue for many men. Many express concern that women are being promoted ahead of them, based primarily on gender, not better qualifications. Many men claim that with the influx of women at higher levels, corporate norms have changed. But seldom are the new policies or standards for behavior clarified and codified.

Gender differences are a fact of life—and a growing point of contention. And the consequences of turning a blind eye to them can be severe. Beyond risking expensive lawsuits, you risk losing sharp and seasoned employees.

Yet things don’t have to be this way. Organizations can move beyond misunderstandings and perceptions of unfairness. Gender Talk, the communication that occurs daily between men and women, can be done openly to: create a culture where men and women want to work; enhance productivity; reduce conflict, miscommunication, and misunderstandings; and attract top talent (men and women) who will add value to your company.

I find that both genders are increasingly willing to collaborate. With new technologies—from Twitter to Facebook—everyone is talking about everything (albeit often behind management’s back). As a leader, you can pretend these conversations are not taking place—or lead the discussion, proactively structuring the Gender Talk and facilitating healthy communication on gender issues.

To avoid discrimination lawsuits, take five steps:

1. Educate your employees. Conduct workshops to help them crack the gender code so they can recognize and appreciate similarities and differences in gender culture and perspectives.

2. Create a complaint hotline where workers can feel safe expressing their concerns. Address each issue promptly, professionally, and properly.

3. Ensure that both men and women receive the respect they deserve and the support they need to do their jobs.

4. Develop and review policies. Ensure new hires and current employees know what’s permissible (and what’s not) and know the rules and regulations regarding sexual discrimination and harassment. Make sure your firm’s anti-harassment and equality-opportunity policies and procedures are clear and in writing in the employee handbook.

5. Examine your pay scales. Be prepared to explain to workers (male and female) why they are being paid less than—or not promoted as quickly—as their "other-gender" colleague.

Facilitate collaborative Gender Talk and foster an inclusive team approach.

First Published in Leadership Excellence www.leaderexcel.com 7/2010