Workplace Harassment: It Can Happen to Anyone, So What Should Employers Do?
By Marie J. Killian, JD
Absence, Productivity, and HR Consulting
With the snowballing of the #MeToo movement, now more than ever, individuals are speaking up about the right to have a workplace that is free of all forms of harassment.
What Is Workplace Harassment?
Workplace harassment can happen to anyone in the workplace: women and men of any age, any position, paid interns, professionals, and teen workers in all industries. It occurs when a person is a target of hostility or unwanted conduct. To rise to the level of “harassment,” the behavior must be offensive and persistent. Employers are obligated to protect employees from being harassed based on personal factors such as gender, religion, or ethnicity; employees have protection against being harassed through both federal and state employment laws.
What Are the Risks to Employers?
Employers have a legal obligation to maintain a workplace that is free of harassment. It is also good business to be proactive. Out-of-pocket costs for a company that tolerates harassment can be significant. In 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recovered nearly $70 million for sexual harassment complaints, a 47% increase over 2017. Other costs can include loss of clients and customers, loss of talent, damage to the corporate reputation, and lost productivity.
Best Practices to Prevent and Manage Harassment Claims
Review and update all anti-harassment policies in the employee handbook. Write employment policies in clear language and provide real-life examples of prohibited behavior. State clearly that the policy applies to the worksite, company-sponsored events, and social events. Include Internet use, social media, emails, and text messages in the policy. State that the company will not tolerate harassment of a sexual, racial, ethnic, or religious nature. Indicate that offenders will be disciplined and may be terminated.
Conduct harassment prevention/respectful workplace training. Customize your training to ensure it aligns with the workplace culture and demographics of your employees and supervisors (age, education, etc.). Provide examples specific to your business. Provide training not just in what managers shouldn’t do, but also in what they should do. Provide training at least annually for everyone, including members of the corporate board of directors. Obtain a detailed written acknowledgment of the training signed by the employee and co-signed by the trainer.
Create a complaint and reporting process. Create a strong anti-harassment written complaint process. Make clear that complaints can be brought by both the employees who have experienced harassment and those who have witnessed the behavior. Provide two or more separate and different ways in which employees can report a complaint. Reinforce that there will be no retaliation for reporting. The process should not require victims of alleged harassment to submit complaints or reports directly to the party accused of harassing.
Investigate and take corrective action immediately. Begin an investigation regarding an employee’s assertion as soon as it is known. Even if a formal complaint is not presented, conduct an investigation before one is created. Ideally, use a neutral third-party investigator, such as a lawyer or human resources consultant.
Assess all related best practice strategies. Determine the extent of your organization’s insurance coverage for sexual harassment and abuse claims. Review the employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) that covers your organization in the event of workplace harassment allegations; update this coverage if it is inadequate. If in the past year you have not updated your employee handbook, conducted anti-harassment training, documented a formal process for filing a complaint, or reviewed your EPLI coverage, consider taking action now.