A few weeks ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released its annual charge filing and resolution statistics.
The report tracks case trends from 1997 through 2011. Last year, charges rose to the highest level seen in this time period. Yet the percentage of reasonable cause findings of discrimination stayed relatively flat, at 3.8 percent. The other 96.2 percent of the cases were settled with benefits, withdrawn or dismissed. What's causing people to lodge an increasing number of cases even as the administrative findings of liability remain relatively constant?
A number of explanations leap to mind. Economic stresses could be causing more people to file claims to protect or regain their jobs.
Maybe more people are imagining discrimination where it doesn't exist or are just making up "facts" to settle a grudge with a supervisor or employer. I'm sure all of these play a role; any seasoned human resource professional or labor lawyer can remember investigating and defending claims fitting each of these scenarios.
But, as I've written elsewhere, I believe there's a new dynamic at play that may be a central part of the problem. Leaders increasingly lack the skills needed to recognize and address employee discontent, which allows decisions and actions to appear unfair or potentially illegal even when they may not be. Also, many leaders fail to understand that conduct and actions need not be explicitly illegal to appear discriminatory.
I don't see much hope for a reversal of this trend if a recent post in the Harvard Business Review is correct. The post summarized a study suggesting that people whose time is focused on computer-based work may be "diminishing their empathy and social skills." Gonzaga University's John K. Mullen's findings suggest:
"With 55% of person-to-person communication being nonverbal [tone of voice, inflection], over-reliance on computer-based interactions may hamper an individual's ability to judge intent and influence others."
Prof. Mullen's key point is that the loss of such basic human skills may be depriving many people of the ability to communicate effectively and build trust—qualities he notes are essential in sales, diplomacy and, let me add, leadership.
When I've spoken to clients lately, the lack of workplace trust between managers and their teams is a common theme. Building such bonds is a process; it's not accomplished through rote application of a memorized checklist.
It involves ongoing two-way communication, behavioral consistency and follow-through. It's tested in challenging situations and it requires skills, not just book or computer knowledge. You can't develop these skills when you have less rather than more human contact.
We add to this problem when we focus workplace training more on distributing information than building skills. Knowing how to apply knowledge in the context of day-to-day challenges and interactions is what best minimizes risk and the potential drain on productivity that results from the filing of claims, meritless or not.
Learning how to recognize and address problems takes practice and reinforcement involving human interaction and feedback. Getting the person-to-person dimension right is the ultimate box that needs to be checked on a leader's priorities. Doing that will make those EEOC numbers, and all of the costs associated with them, markedly decrease.
Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.