CategoryProgressive Discipline

Addressing Gender Bias Complaints

Last week’s post discussed ways to show women the respect they deserve at work. One of the recommendations was believing women when they bring gender bias and discrimination to management’s attention.

When the issues are not blatant, it can be difficult to determine if a problem really exists … and more difficult to know what to do about it.

Inevitably, the woman is going to say something happened — but the man is going to say there is no issue and it is all in the other woman’s mind. That pesky discrimination dogwhistle is going to continue to blow — and your workplace will suffer and be at risk.

Count on it.

How do you get to the truth?

Look for patterns

Review communications for tone and timing. Also look at audience and escalation. If there is bias, you will find the messages have a negative, condescending and/or demanding tone. You will also find copying of unnecessary other people on messages and/or escalating issues to the woman’s supervisor which should be resolved a peer level … Compare these patterns to the handling of communications with male co-workers in similar positions and see if the same thing is happening. If not, gender bias is likely at play and it should be addressed.

Listen for buzzwords

Pay attention to how women are described. Girls, gals and females are words that can chip away at respect for women in the workplace. Some other buzzwords are dramatic, emotional, nagging, whiny, bossy and pushy.  Even worse are words like pussy and bitch … When traits associated with women or being a woman are used as negative adjectives to describe anyone in your workplace, it is wrong — and gender bias is likely at play and it should be addressed.

Learn from witnesses

Your employees are smart and they see what’s going on. Many are eager to share their observations and feedback. Utilize witnesses to gain insight into the issues. Ask what they have seen occur between the parties involved and what their own observations and experiences have been … See if they say the treatment for all is the same. If not, gender bias is likely at play and it should be addressed.

Gender bias is happening. Now what???

Gender bias in your workplace doesn’t mean firing all the men and replacing them with women. The goal should always be to maintain diversity, inclusion and fairness.

What it does mean sharing the feedback and taking corrective action with the men who show gender bias behaviors.  It means declaring what is unacceptable. It means outlining what is appropriate. It means providing one or both parties with training to improve communication and inclusion skills. It means not allowing these kinds of behaviors to continue.

That means following up with both individuals routinely to assess progress. It means resetting expectations. It means defining timelines and deadlines for improvement. It means checking in periodically to ensure sustained effort.

Because eliminating bias in our workplaces isn’t just a one-and-done kind of thing. It takes continuous, concentrated and committed effort. It is nothing to play with.

Don’t start the work if you don’t intend to finish it.


HR Rock, Paper, Scissors … SHOOT!!

I came across an interesting employee relations issue a few months ago. Here’s a quick summary of what happened …

A White female employee made a complaint about her Hispanic male supervisor, claiming he was treating her unfairly and was generally derelict in his duties as a manager. HR investigated the issue but we were unable to substantiate the claim. The supervisor was issued a basic warning, everyone was sent back to work and the supervisor’s supervisor (a Black female over 40 years old) was instructed to keep an eye on both parties.

Within 2 weeks, another complaint was lodged. The Black female over 40 years old called the White female to get the details of the latest complaint against the Hispanic male. A confrontation ensued where the White female used inappropriate and profane language in speaking with the Black female over 40 years old. The White female was suspended pending investigation into the confrontation. A few days later, she was terminated for initiating and escalating the conflict. She later filed claim with the EEOC claiming the Black female over 40 years old terminated lured her into conflict and conspired with HR to terminate her in retaliation for her complaint against the Hispanic male.

Handling employee issues like these often feels like a bad game of Rock – Paper – Scissors …

  • Female covers Male
  • Minority covers White
  • Old covers Young


Most guidance on employee relations teaches us to consider protected class status in our recommendations and decisions on discipline. Right or wrong, we cannot ignore it and honestly claim to be protecting our organizations from separation litigation risk. Adverse action and adverse impact are still very much a real and legitimate problem — and government agencies are still on the lookout for it. We have a responsibility to be both mindful of and able to account for decisions we make that may seem discriminatory.

However, as our workplaces continue to become more diverse, it is rare to encounter an issue where more than one protected class of people isn’t represented. In the example above, there is race, gender and age all in the mix — and I forgot to mention the Hispanic male is also a devout Christian and the Black female over 40 years old is also homosexual. I think that covers just about everything but genetic information!

So what is a HR person to do when everyone in the employee conflict is covered by protected class status?

The answer is the simple:

Consider the policy, past practice and precedents — then do what is in the best interest of the reputation and goals of your organization

 To do this, we have to focus on the facts … In our story, the facts are that an employee complained about a supervisor, the investigation was unable to substantiate a violation, appropriate warnings were issued and the employee was later terminated for flagrant insubordination toward a member of management in the process of filing another complaint. With some legal guidance, there is no reason the company cannot successfully defend this decisions.

Don’t get caught in the losing game of HR Rock – Paper – Scissors. When employee conflicts decisions start to look confusing and difficult, that’s the time for HR to keep it simple and be decisive. It is not the time for games.

“The Choice is Clear” — A Lesson in Conflict Resolution

It’s never easy for a manager to resolve conflict between employees. And we are often the most unprepared for handling it when we start out. Many managers never gain the skills needed to successfully manage and resolve conflict.

Mike was one of those managers.

Two of his employees, Kim and Tina, just could not seem to get along. It wasn’t a big deal when they were just co-workers in the same department — but it became a huge problem when Kim got promoted and became Tina’s boss … Within a month, Tina was in Mike’s office to complain about Kim and request a transfer to an area outside of Kim’s supervision and influence.

And, of course, Mike came to my office for advice and guidance.

Did Kim violate a policy as it relates to her supervision of Tina?

No, Kim hasn’t done anything in violation of policy. It’s more that Tina doesn’t like her and isn’t responding to her management style

How’s Tina’s performance level?

Tina is just OK. She’s not top of the group, but she’s not the bottom.

Are you in favor of moving her to another area?

I don’t really have another place to put her. And Kim’s still learning the other areas so I can’t move her. At least not right now. I have 3 other people that have put in to be moved when an opening comes.

I gave him a blank stare.

I know this sounds silly to you. But it’s hard for me. I don’t want to choose!

It’s too late for that. You’ve already made your choice.

When an organization promotes someone into management, they agree to have that person’s back. The organization is saying they trust this person’s decision-making and behavior to represent and lookout for the company’s interests. And barring a violation of this trust, the organization agrees to support this person’s choices.

Mike chose Kim when he promoted her over Tina. Since Kim had not violated any company policy, we had no cause to discipline her. Tina’s request for transfer was duly noted but we would not process it at that time because there was no opening — and we weren’t going to push a transfer through for a mediocre performer just because she didn’t like her supervisor. The real world of work doesn’t operate that way. Tina’s request for transfer would eventually be processed alongside all other requests according to procedure.

When I shared this story with some of my HR friends, they gasped and criticized me. They said the decision not to move Tina was leaving the company at risk … Perhaps they’re right. However, I believe HR is responsible to mitigate risk not eliminate it. There will always be risk. No matter how good the leadership and HR is at what they do, risk will never go away.

When issues are brought to our attention, HR has a duty is to investigate, determine if a violation of policy has occurred and correct the problem. We are not fairy godmothers, pixies or genies here to make every employee want, whim and wish come true. If the investigation finds no violation, there is no problem to correct and no additional action to be taken. Conducting a complete, thorough investigation which exonerates the person accused of wrong-doing is the best and correct answer.

The choice is clear.



Save Your Memo. Deal With The Problem

The manager of the assembly department came into my office. “I need your help to write a memo,” he said.

Ok. What’s this memo about?

“I want to remind everyone that they only get two 15-minute breaks during their shift and that they need to clock out if they are going to take longer than that or if they need more than just the two breaks.”

Well, that’s pretty much the same thing our Handbook says in the policy on lunch and breaks. Why do you feel you need to write a memo?

“The smokers are getting out of control! They are taking breaks every hour almost to go outside to smoke. I’ve gotta do something about it!”

How many people are going outside to smoke every hour?

“It’s mainly 3 people.”

Have you talked to them about it to let them know it is a problem?

“No. I was going to do that after I gave everyone the memo if the memo didn’t fix it.”

Um. I don’t think a memo is the best course of action here …

I don’t like blanket “reminder memos” to employees about policies. As far as I am concerned, the copy of the Handbook and other manuals issued are the only reminders needed — unless there is a policy update or some other change.

“Reminder memos” usually mean a few employees are breaking rules and the manager wants them to stop — but is too chicken to address the problem directly so they send a “reminder memo” instead.

Listen up: Your “reminder memo” isn’t fooling anyone — it is only making you look foolish! The other employees know who and what the “reminder memo” is really about — and they are talking bad about you for sending a memo instead of dealing with the issue. And the employees who are breaking the rules are ignoring your memo — or they’re crafting new, improved ways to break the rules. Maybe both.

Instead of writing a blanket “reminder memo”, you should pull the problem employee(s) aside privately to remind them of the policy and to tell them that their actions are in violation. Let them know the behaviors expected for improvement and the timeframe required to comply with this change. Then give them a personal memo documenting the conversation for them to sign and place a copy in their employee file. Repeat this process if the behavior doesn’t change. After 2 or 3 repetitions, you may have to wish the person well in their future endeavors and end the employment relationship. But hopefully, it won’t come to that.

That’s how you address bad employee behavior. Save your “reminder” memo. Deal with the problem.

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