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Panel aims at even field: Commission helps residents fight discrimination


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Columbus prides itself on being an open and diverse community. So much so that the city’s communitywide strategic plan lists a “welcoming community” as one if its seven strategic priorities.

But according to the director of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, which assists residents who face discrimination, the city has a way to go before the commission no longer is needed.

Sex discrimination cases are the most common types of complaints the commission receives. Race discrimination cases were the most prevalent when the commission started in 1962, and now it usually is second on the list, said Lorraine Smith, who was named the commission’s director last year.

 

The city’s human rights ordinance states that an equal opportunity must be provided to all Columbus residents, and that it is unlawful to discriminate in the areas of employment, housing, education, public accommodation or credit on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin or ancestry, familial status (in housing), age, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Proactive measures by the Human Rights Commission to solve problems are a prime reason that only one public hearing — the last step in the resolution process — has been necessary in the past 15-plus years, Smith said.

The commission, in partnership with Mill Race Center, recently launched an initiative, “Adventures in DiversCity,” intended to improve diversity in Columbus through cross-cultural learning and awareness. Participants compete for a grand prize by participating in events that represent a variety of groups.

The contest provides an intergenerational look at the community, deputy director Frances Jordan said.

The large number of women in the workforce has provided more opportunities for sex discrimination, Smith said.

Harassment and inequality of pay for the same job are examples of sex discrimination. Sometimes it involves an employee or manager using a position of authority to treat another employee unfairly, Jordan said.

Almost 60 percent of the discrimination cases handled by the Human Rights Commission last year involved sexual harassment.

“Sometimes we see with small businesses that they don’t have procedures or policies in place (for employees) to complain or make upper management aware (of discrimination),” Smith said.

The Columbus Human Rights Commission receives about 150 calls per year from people claiming discrimination, Smith said. The number usually increases during tougher economic times.

Fear of retribution within a company sometimes is why employees turn to an outside resource such as the commission for help.

Not all the calls result in formal complaints with the commission. Callers are advised on how to resolve matters with the human resources departments at their places of employment. Information also is collected to determine if the complaint falls under the commission’s jurisdiction or if it is a state or federal matter.

This year, 14 formal complaints have been filed, although only three fell under the commission’s jurisdiction, Smith said. The commission helps callers file formal complaints with state and federal agencies. The commission usually has jurisdiction over five to 10 formal complaints each year, Smith said.

If a complaint is determined to be under the commission’s jurisdiction and has grounds for discrimination, mediation is offered to both parties. That’s a way to get both parties to resolve the issue.

John Stroh, a Columbus attorney and Human Rights Commission member who also serves as a mediator, said the mediation process usually resolves the differences.

“We can clear up misunderstandings or misinterpretations. There’s often different perceptions. It’s a chance to talk through and understand the facts,” Stroh said. “Sometimes one side or both realize they didn’t handle a situation as well as they should have.”

Stroh tries to get the parties to reach an agreement.

If mediation is rejected or fails, a complaint may receive a formal investigation. That involves interviews with both parties and witnesses and a review of documents. The head of the commission makes the final ruling, and an attempt is made to reach a written settlement. If this step fails, the case could go to a public hearing.

But that’s extremely rare.

“Preventing discrimination is one thing we want to happen — educating the community so discrimination doesn’t happen in the beginning,” Smith said.

The commission tries to spread awareness of the issue through speaking engagements, brochures, its website and its annual dinner.

“Businesses are becoming more aware of what the law requires,” Smith said. “I think they may be more aware of the consequences of not having policies in place or providing training to management or employees.”

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