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The Rising Cost Of Workplace Discrimination In Utah

With a 146 percent rise in the number of workplace discrimination claims brought in Utah in the last decade, the potential cost of those claims may be an important variable for Utah employers to consider.

In 2009, 107 charges of discrimination were brought forward in the state of Utah, compared to 264 claims brought forward in 2017. Since claims of workplace discrimination may expose businesses to potentially unexpected costs, it’s worth learning more about workplace discrimination and how it might affect Utah businesses.

Even if a discrimination claim is unsuccessful on its merits and does not result in a monetary judgment or large settlement, a workplace discrimination claim may still be fairly expensive to defend and see dismissed. A meritorious claim for discrimination, however, may incur both the costs of defending against the claim and paying a potentially large judgment or signing a settlement check that is attractive enough to dismiss a potentially meritorious claim.

Under federal law, companies with 15 or more employees are subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employment discrimination. (See 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2 et seq.).  Similarly, in Utah, companies with 15 or more employees are subject to the Utah Antidiscrimination Act. (See Utah Code Ann. § 34A-5-101 et seq.).

Under both federal and state discrimination laws, workplace discrimination claims generally encompass allegations that an employee suffered some sort of harassment or adverse employment action because the employee was a member of a protected class. Protected classes include employees over the age of 40; employees with a mental or physical disability; employees who are pregnant; and the national origin, citizenship, race, religion, citizenship, gender, and sexual orientation of employees.

Settlement awards against employers for workplace discrimination have exponentially increased in the last decade, especially in class action lawsuits. In 2009, the top 10 settlement awards cost United States employers $84.4 million, collectively, in employment discrimination cases. In 2017, however, the top 10 settlement awards cost employers a staggering $2.72 billion. (Seyfarth’s 14th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report).

One reason for this increase may be that employees with access to online resources are more adept to find not only the state and federal laws that form the basis of a cause of action for workplace discrimination, but also a myriad of personal experiences and encouragement to pursue even a poor claim. Armed with such information, an employee may be more likely to file a complaint if they believe they were discriminated against.   

It may, therefore, be a very prudent business decision for an employer to incur costs on the front-end that may defray potential meritorious claims for workplace discrimination. One way employers may reduce the number of workplace discrimination claims is to have and enforce a rigorous policy that clearly states the company’s anti discrimination position and expectations from its employees. Even if an employer currently has such a policy, employers may be served well by revisiting it no less than annually, to make sure it is up-to-date with changes in state and federal law. Revising the policy annually also gives employers an opportunity to circulate the revision to employees so they are reminded how to act in a non-discriminatory fashion.

Employers may also conduct periodic trainings to educate employees about the many different types of discrimination and give employees tools that enable them to interact respectfully with their peers. Implicit bias trainings, for example, teach employees that many of their thoughts and actions regarding people may be motivated by ingrained and subconscious biases. Understanding implicit biases may help employees to be more cautious in making decisions or statements that may be discriminatory, even if the employee did not intend to discriminate.

Since workplace discrimination claims may be a surprising and hefty expense to Utah businesses, it may be a good investment for Utah employers to take proactive measures to reduce discriminatory behavior and potentially defray costs of defending discrimination claims.

Written by Alexandra Sandvik, an attorney in the Salt Lake City office of Snell & Wilmer. She focuses her practice on labor and employment law and commercial litigation.

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