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Published: Saturday, 9/25/2004

Prevention 1st defense against bias suits

Preventing workplace discrimination cases is easier than defending them, representatives of Toledo-area businesses and government agencies were told yesterday.

But if a problem arises over age, race, sex, or religious discrimination, mediation is often the best, least-disruptive solution, officials of federal and state agencies told an audience of about 35 at a forum for employers in the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library's McMaster Center.

Daniel Cabot, enforcement manager for the Cleveland district office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, urged employers to study federal rules on harassment, discrimination, and accommodation of employees with disabilities "and make sure your employment [practices] are guided by them."

Employers should treat employees with as much respect as possible, and the top executives should make it known the business places a priority on following the rules, said G. Michael Payton, executive director of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in Columbus. "A value system starts with the boss."

The half-day seminar was sponsored by the state and federal civil rights agencies.

Mr. Payton suggested adopting uniform policies and practices and making sure employees know what they are, even by giving refresher courses. Comments in the workplace "can very quickly turn into a hostile work environment," he said. "You want to make sure 'shop talk' is monitored."

Given some workplace problems for Arab Americans since Sept. 11, 2001, he suggested telling those employees: "If something happens to you, please let me know."

Often, communication is the problem, not age, sex, or race, Mr. Cabot said.

Mediation can eliminate frustration, he added.

The EEOC had to investigate all charges filed by employees, but now is able to assess a situation first, and often mediation resolves problems short of an investigation, he said.

Mr. Cabot urged employers to refresh their knowledge of questions they may not ask job-seekers, including queries about hospitalization, major illnesses, absences from a job, physical defects, or past filings for workers' compensation.

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