Practical Protection: What You Need To Know About Workplace Harassment When You’re In Charge

Contributed by Ashley Kaplan, Esq., ComplyRight

Workplace harassment can cost business owners a small fortune if they aren’t proactive about prevention. In fact, a single harassment lawsuit can cost more than $100,000 to defend.

Fortunately, you can take common-sense measures to keep your workplace free of unlawful harassment and discrimination. But first you have to understand what harassment is and why it’s a problem.

How Do You Define Harassment?

Harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination. It includes all types of conduct that show hostility toward a person because of that person’s gender, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability or any other legally protected category. Many cities and counties also ban workplace harassment based on characteristics such as sexual orientation, marital status or political affiliation.

Harassment is prohibited whether it occurs in person, in writing, by telephone, email, via social media or through any other means of communication.

Prevention Is Key

It’s critical for all businesses to have a formal anti-harassment policy in place – signed and dated by every employee and kept in personnel files.  The policy should have a clear explanation of prohibited conduct and list the contact information of at least two people in your company designated to receive complaints.

Of course, anti-harassment policies are only as effective as the supervisors and managers who implement them. Surprisingly, many employees don’t know what conduct constitutes unlawful harassment, and may not be able to recognize their actions are illegal. Training will go a long way in preventing harassment from occurring in the first place.

Good training covers more than just the policy. Employee training should emphasize what type of conduct is illegal as well as examples of inappropriate conduct prohibited by the company’s zero-tolerance policy against harassment. Employees should also be trained on what to do if they are subjected to harassment or witness harassment, and how the company handles harassment investigations. Training should also encourage employees to come forward internally with any complaints so the company has the opportunity to resolve the issues and possibly avoid legal liability. Finally, managers and supervisors should be trained separately on their heightened obligations to prevent harassment and how to respond if they observe harassment or receive a formal complaint.

If You Do Receive A Complaint

Harassment complaints are serious business so it’s important to have a plan in place if an incident is reported. Here are some tips on what to do if you receive a complaint from an employee:

  1. Listen to the employee’s concerns carefully and make sure he or she knows that your company takes the complaint seriously.
  2. Inform the employee that you will keep the complaint as confidential as possible but that it must be investigated.
  3. Select someone to investigate the claim. This person will conduct interviews, review documentation and record findings. Consider hiring an attorney if you don’t have someone experienced with handling harassment claims on staff.
  4. Respond promptly. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission urges employers to respond within 48 hours of receiving a complaint.
  5. Prepare a written report detailing the complaint.

Most importantly, make sure the harassing behavior stops. In addition, do not allow any retaliation against the person for reporting the compliant. That is illegal.

The Bottom Line

As a business owner, you juggle many different roles and responsibilities. However, one of your primary duties is to ensure a safe and harassment-free workplace for your employees. Increased harassment awareness and education will help you maintain a positive, productive work environment.

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