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Prepare for Landing: Creating Lasting Policy Change After the Wildest Ride in History

Prepare for Landing: Creating Lasting Policy Change After the Wildest Ride in History

Nearly everyone would agree that 2020 has been a year filled with twists that have turned the HR world on its head. Just when the employment law community felt we had a handle on COVID-19 policy compliance, the world was shocked by heartbreaking displays of police brutality and racial insensitivity. When one round of protests and unrest led to greater understanding of the issues facing persons of color in the United States, another COVID-19 outbreak kicked off the summer, derailing many business’ plans to reopen and stay open. Because the ride was far from over, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin set off yet another round of demonstrations across the country and led professional athletes to make their voices heard by refusing to compete in games until ownership outlined substantive changes to their work environment and the methods by which their voices are heard regarding issues of systemic racism.


As the calendar flips to September, so begins the fourth quarter of the most tumultuous year in modern history. As we begin looking to 2021 (with 2020 and its challenges forever in clear focus) we must consider how the pain and suffering of this year can be used to create policies that will allow our employees to work in an environment free of fear from epidemiological disease and the equally dangerous disease of racism, prejudice, and discrimination in the workplace. How your organization chooses to deal with these issues will not only shape the memory of 2020, but also how your employees (and outsiders) view your organization as we work past 2020 into a more inclusive and empathetic workplace for employees of all backgrounds.


Remote work has changed the policy game


While many employers have treated remote work as a “privilege” that was either specifically outlined in a paid-time-off (“PTO”) or other policy, COVID-19 made remote work mandatory for the vast majority of employees. Forced to go this route, many employers simply did not have the time to adjust their policies. As the months went on and remote work has become the norm, it is increasingly important for all employers to review their policies with respect to not just PTO and vacation, but also off the clock work, overtime, confidentiality, expense reimbursement, clock-in/clock-out, and other issues that you may not have contemplated at the beginning of the year if your workplace was more “traditional” office or on-site work prior to the beginning of the pandemic.


Inclusivity is paramount going forward


The multiple rounds of race-related demonstrations in 2020 have shown us the importance of ensuring inclusivity in the workplace as paramount to not just success, but compliance. No longer is it sufficient to have an equal employment opportunity policy and state that your organization does not discriminate against members of protected classes. Indeed, multiple states (including California and New York) have taken that concept one step further and outlawed discrimination on the basis of hairstyle discrimination, which has historically been connected with African American employees (as well as other persons of color). In order to be compliant with the law and demonstrate a commitment to a culture of inclusivity, your organization absolutely must review its anti-discrimination to ensure that the workplace is more equitable. This includes reviewing your wage policies to make sure that women, persons of color, and other historically disadvantaged employees are being adequately compensated for the positions they are working for your organization.


The pandemic has taught us the need for paid leave


While 2020 saw paid leave come into focus at the federal level via the Families First Coronavirus Paid Leave Act (“FFCPA”), the pandemic has taught us the need for empathy when an employee or their family member falls ill. This has led to many employers crafting expansive paid leave policies that go far beyond anything contemplated by the federal or state legislatures, and emphasizing the importance of being away from work to recover from an illness (or care for a sick family member) without the fear of losing pay during an extended absence. As the “new normal” has become increasingly normal, the theme of employer empathy has grown throughout 2020. This means your organization should be thinking about crafting policies that show that you care about your workforce. If it means an increase in available paid sick leave, that should be the new normal your leadership is thinking about if it helps keep peace of mind throughout your workforce.


Harassment (and training obligations) have not gone away


Prior to 2020, the unquestioned business focus in recent years has been an elimination of workplace harassment, particularly sexual harassment. While 2020 has brought focus to other types of HR issues, harassment and discrimination (particulalry directed towards women) has certainly not gone away. Even as we have moved into a remote work environment, inappropriate comments, e-harassment, and other issues have continued to percolate across the country. Now, more than ever, it is important to ensure that your harassment policy is up-to-date concerning issues that may impact your workforce in the current environment. Examples include: acceptable technology (and web-conferencing) use language; increased harassment training programs that reflect the current [remote] work environment; and training on how and when to speak up when something is not right.


All of the policy reviews suggested in this article are aimed at improving your workplace culture toward an environment of inclusivity, civility, and respect. Syntrio’s courses follow this model, and our belief is that those organizations that embrace a culture of respect are more likely to not just comply with their obligations, but also operate in an environment where employees are proud to work (and want to stay). With as much chaos as we have seen in the past nine months, now is the time to make our employees feel comfortable, and fully aware of the sincerity of their employers commitment to keeping them healthy, safe, and free of systemic racism and misogyny. A policy review (and change where necessary now) is an important step toward achieving that goal for 2020 and beyond.

Since 2007, Jonathan has practiced labor and employment law on behalf of management. Jonathan focuses his practice on advising employers on the prevention of harassment and discrimination issues, with an emphasis on providing in-person harassment training programs to companies of all sizes. Jonathan is licensed in California, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and maintains a national advice practice.

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