-- Deborah Cohen covers small business for Reuters.com. She can be reached at email@example.com --
By Deborah L. Cohen
CHICAGO (Reuters.com) - As the rolls of the unemployed increase, so do rosters of related complaints from existing and newly terminated workers. They range from age and sex discrimination claims to wage and hour grievances.
Private discrimination claims in the United States were up a dramatic 15.2 percent last year to 95,402 compared with the year-earlier period, as more employees alleged unfair treatment or harassment at work, according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission's fiscal-year 2008 Performance and Accountability Report.
With the rising pressures of fewer employees doing more work - sometimes for the same or less pay - experts offer some simple strategies that can help cap frustrations before they escalate to costly litigation.
"When employees believe managers are not listening to them, when they sense their work is unappreciated, disengagement breeds," says Leila Bulling Towne, a San Francisco-based management coach who runs the Bulling Towne Group LLC.
Bulling Towne works with the top brass of California companies employing 50 to 800 workers. When the going gets tough, her solution calls for more time spent in the trenches with the rank and file.
"Start talking to employees," she says. "Talk about what needs to get done each day and how each person contributes. Be visible. Be in your office with the door open. Walk around."
"Pay attention to people. Pay attention to body language, to off-hand comments," she adds. "If you suspect someone is unhappy, irritated or angry, do the opposite of what you want to do: ask questions to learn what is going on. The longer you do nothing, the more time and perhaps money, you will spend later on."
Oftentimes giving employees the opportunity to provide feedback leads to beneficial changes that can improve operations, she says.
"People may actually bring things up to you - you should have enough time to actually talk about it rather than just doing a fly by," Bulling Towne says.
"Training is my pet project and something I really push," says Mary Jean Skelly, human resources manager for Kirchhoff Construction Management Inc., a Pleasant Valley, New York firm located about 70 miles north of Manhattan. The company, which employs about 185, specializes in private projects for universities and schools.
"We need to give our employees the tools to do the best jobs they can," says Skelly, who in the past year has been including more soft skills training in leadership as well as classes in software the firm's construction employees use in the field.
"We've also increased our safety program," says Skelly, a move that has led to lower insurance and workman's compensation rates, which are a significant cost in the construction industry.
"We're trying to be very proactive," says Skelly, whose firm has held a moratorium on raises but has not yet had to lay off workers due to the economic downturn.
One unlikely benefit of the recession is that it provides a good opportunity to scrutinize longstanding practices that may be stretching your remaining staff too thin, says Rebecca Mazin, cofounder of Recruit Right, a Larchmont, New York human resources consulting firm.
"Is this a process that we need, a report that we need?," says Mazin of the questions senior management should now ask. "Can it be revamped?"
Among the biggest candidates for elimination are monthly reports that take hours to produce but may seldom be read. Oftentimes, she notes, employees may be aware of redundancies or unnecessary procedures but afraid to speak up for fear of making waves.
"It's actually a perfect time to say, ‘Why?'" says Mazin.
She suggests that companies consider outsourcing complicated aspects of in-house functions to external services such as payroll and health-care providers.
"I'm not talking about entire jobs; I'm talking about portions of functions," says Mazin, who adds that small to mid-sized firms are often unaware that external providers will work with companies with as few as five employees.
Some functions ripe for farming out? Mazin says new and complicated expansion of COBRA health-care benefits and pre-tax transportation subsidies - both under President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package - are prime examples.
Proactive measures during difficult times can improve the workplace environment but they cannot eliminate complaints entirely. When claims do arise, alternatives such as mediation - less costly and frequently less time consuming than litigation - may be the answer, says Jay Waks, an attorney who heads the employment practice at New York-based law firm Kaye Scholer.
"Mediation is not final and binding and you can opt out at any time," says Waks, who also chairs the employment committee at the International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution, a nonprofit group. "From the company's perspective, do they want a shot at settling it without the employee having to go to a government agency or to court?"
The cost of mediation, which often takes about a day, varies. But mediators are highly trained in dispute resolution and typically hold law degrees, says Waks.
Mediation and other alternatives to litigation such as arbitration can also serve to keep a lid on negative publicity surrounding workplace claims and can reduce the chances of a dispute gaining momentum from other employees in the organization or those that have left the company, he says. "Most of the matters (mediators) hear really are capable of resolution if they take the emotion out of it," he says.