Many organizations take great pride in their employment practices striving to keep them free from employment discrimination. For such companies, a discrimination charge or lawsuit strikes at the very core of the organization’s values. For example, AARP was recently sued for age discrimination by an employee who alleges she was passed over for promotions, laid off, and never recalled despite openings. The irony of such claims plays well in the media, but shouldn’t derail the organization’s efforts if properly managed.
Organizations need to develop an approach to address high profile public relations matters in advance. The approach should coordinate internal and external communications among company officials, PR firms and attorneys and could include the following:
· Immediate press release or comment to the media. You may only get one chance to blunt the media impact of a discrimination claim so having something more to say than “no comment”. Lawyers fear public comments about pending litigation because of the lack of control and the potential that statement may be used to impeach the company official who made them. Comments need not address the merits of the claims, but can reaffirm the organizations commitment to its core values. However, comments to the media should be handled by authorized employees and there should be a clear employment policy prohibiting other managers from speaking to the media about official company positions.
· Internal communications to employees. Employees are sometimes forgotten in the rush to deal with external communications. Information about lawsuits should not be left to the rumor mill. Employers may be limited in what they can say about the facts, particularly if the litigant is still employed. However, at the very least, internal communications should include the fact of the suit, a denial of wrongdoing, and a reaffirmation of EEO policies.
· Use of non-public forums for dispute resolution. The EEOC, state discrimination agencies and the courts have alternated dispute resolution mechanisms including mediation. ADR can be an effective, less costly and more private forum of resolving discrimination claims.
Obviously, public disclosure of a discrimination claim can hurt a company’s image. Managing internal and external communications with advanced planning can mitigate the adverse impact.