Here’s an unsettling thought:

Some lawsuits against employers just seem more believable than others.

I’m unsettled by that thought because it suggests that there are built-in stereotypes with companies.  And, working in the employment law area, we all strive to ensure that stereotyping of employees becomes a thing of a past and that employers judge employees fairly.

And yet, with some companies, stereotypes remain.  For example, with the NASCAR circuit, there remains a stereotype that it is mainly geared towards white Southern males, some of whom aren’t afraid to wave the confederate flag on occasion (of course, those in New England know that’s untrue, based on the fans that flock to the track in Louden, New Hampshire).

So when word spread on Wednesday about a sexual and racial harassment lawsuit against NASCAR, I’m sure there were more than a few people who had the gut reaction that it may at least be possibleWorld of Work blog has the details that suggest that the lawsuit — which seeks $225 MILLION in damages — may be lacking a bit on merit.  Age discrimination lawsuits against high tech companies play into another stereotype that these companies only want young, energetic employees in their workforce. 

Contrast that with a pregnancy discrimination claim against a maternity store.  Or a race discrimination claim against the CHRO.  Those claims, on their face, just don’t seem possible or likely. After all, why would a maternity store have negative views on pregnant women? Why would a state agency whose mission is designed to protect employees against discrimination, then discriminate against its own employees?

Thus, when a company is sued, one of the first questions it should be asking is: Does this lawsuit sound or seem credible?  If so, the company must realize that there is a built-in prejudice that — fairly or unfairly –it needs to address. 

But interestingly, a one size fits all approach to this issue won’t work. Obviously, some companies will choose to show that the stereotype is wrong.  But others may choose to embrace their stereotype – a risky move that can gain success as well.  For example, in a recent sexual harassment claim brought against a casino, the employer said it was important to take into account the context of the employee’s employment as a bartender.  The court agreed and concluded that the employee, who made off-color remarks, repeatedly grabbed the rear end of a female coworker, and gave sexually suggestive gifts to a coworker, could not contend that similar actions by a supervisor were harassment.

So what can employer do to combat the stereotyping of certain companies or industries?

  • Continue to break down the stereotypes that may exist with your particular industry or business. 
  • Create and run training programs for employees to show that the Company is concerned about the issue — before an actual lawsuit occurs.  
  • Create internal programs or events that play off For example, a financial services company may decide to host an event geared towards women customers — attempting to break a stereotype of a male-dominated industry.
  • Get involved in other community events or a non-profit organization that addresses that stereotype.
  • For larger, more sophisticated companies, seek the assistance of a public-relations team to reinforce an image — not just a brand for selling products, but a brand for attracting employees.
  • And similarly, reinforce that image through an aggressive hiring strategy. Good talent attracts more talent.  There’s nothing better for a company to show at trial than hiring statistics that match the diversity of the population.  Obviously, I’m not talking about hiring people because of their race; rather, it means making sure that companies draw from as a diverse a group of candidates as they can.

UPDATE: Kris Dunn of the HR Capitalist, has this update on the story with additional thoughts from an HR perspective here