Gender, or sex-based, discrimination is defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of that person’s sex. Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
With or without merit, accusations and lawsuits surrounding either situation are never easy for a retailer. “Claims are extremely disruptive to staff and can be extremely expensive if you are found liable,” says Cecilia Gardner, president and CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC).
The first thing you should do to protect yourself is to create written store policies that outline all of your business practices, including everything from your return and exchange policies to employee relations. Unfortunately, many companies overlook this step, says Kate Peterson, CEO of luxury industry consultant Performance Concepts. “Put a copy in everybody’s hands,” she says. “Your company’s future is at stake.”
Create a manual.
You can hire someone to do that or you can do something as simple as search the Internet to find requirements and verbiage for your state. The JVC offers a Jewelers Employment Manual, which helps business owners develop and implement “common-sense policies and procedures.”
Jackie Ford, an employment law expert and partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease in Houston, says jewelers can help avoid gender discrimination lawsuits by including policies on pay levels for any given position as well as the specific criteria used for deciding where an employee falls within a pay range. Criteria can be set using anything that is reasonably job-related, says Ford. What you cannot do is base pay scale on illegal criteria, such as race, gender, religion, pregnancy, and national origin.
Provide employees with job descriptions.
“These aren’t static,” says Andrea Hill, CEO of jewelry industry consulting firm StrategyWerx. “Often, the person working on the sales floor takes over social media and then helps with administrative stuff. Jobs change. Employees deserve a document that outlines what their job is right now. Pay disparity often happens when someone’s job has evolved but their job description is old.”
Look for the signs.
Gardner suggests business owners spend time with their staff to gauge the dynamics between coworkers and between managers and employees. Check what is being done on your computers, what is being said over the water cooler, and what kind of pictures are hung in your break room. Any inappropriate material might be grounds for a complaint.
Casual language and attitudes shouldn’t be a part of your business. “Socializing with employees is fine in a comfortable business environment,” says Peterson. “Partying with employees is not.”
Peterson says the biggest thing small-business owners can do to stay out of trouble is to take a good hard look at their own behavior. “Too often, they say, ‘They’ve known me for years, they know I won’t mean anything by it,’?” she says. “People are always friends until you annoy the wrong one.”
Avoid the pitfalls.
Peterson says there are two common ways retailers get in trouble: “First, they allow themselves to be held hostage to employees,” she says. “Someone threatens to quit and gets a nice big raise because the boss can’t afford to lose them.” In a retail environment, incentive-based pay helps eliminate this problem, with the more qualified employees making more than the less qualified.
The second pitfall is to pay employees a higher rate if they are not using the company’s benefits package. “Unless you’ve specifically laid out this option and everyone has the same choices, you can be running into trouble,” says Peterson.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of JCK magazine.
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