Time for employers to up their game for preventing workplace harassment

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | December 11, 2017

By Charlie Plumb

Franken. Lauer. Spacey. Weinstein. Moore. And others. There is no question that in 2018 all employers will be facing growing harassment challenges. That means now is a critical time to assess the effectiveness of your policy, training and approach to harassment issues in your workplace. Your goal is to prevent harassment before it happens. In those cases where you are unsuccessful with prevention, you should address and solve harassment issues when they arise. Here are some ways for you to up-your-game for harassment.

Your anti-harassment policy

Make sure you have an anti-harassment policy in place and communicated to employees in as many ways as possible – e.g.: handbooks, policy manuals, intranet sites. Although recent media coverage has focused on sexual harassment, your policy should be broad enough to address harassment of any kind, including conduct based on individuals’ race, color, nationality, religion, disability and the like.

Some employees may be unsure about what constitutes “harassment.” Your policy should describe what types of behavior or actions can constitute harassment, and it’s helpful to include examples. Explain that your anti-harassment policy can reach conduct that happens after work hours and off premises and can include electronic communication, such as social media, email, texting and messaging apps. State in no uncertain terms that harassing behavior in any form or context will not be tolerated and may lead to discipline, up to and including discharge.

The best way to prevent and address potential harassment is to have a workplace where employees are willing to bring such problems to your attention. Emphasize that it is every employee’s responsibility to report harassment – whether they are the victim or are aware of another employee who is subject to harassment. Offer alternative avenues to report harassment issues – to a supervisor, human resources, senior management or anonymously. Don’t get hung up on requiring a formal, written complaint. You are trying to facilitate and encourage reporting, not create roadblocks and red tape to the process. Your policy should stress employees reporting harassment or participating in any investigation will absolutely be protected from any retaliation.

Your anti-harassment training

Don’t let your anti-harassment policy simply gather dust. Breathe life into it by conducting periodic harassment training for all employees. One way to stress the employer’s commitment to stopping any form of harassment is to involve senior management in the training. Consider having a company leader give the introduction or closing remarks for your sessions.

Take the time to cover with your workforce what is harassment and discuss the type of behavior and activity you do not tolerate. Your employees should leave training with a clear idea of what is acceptable and unacceptable workplace conduct.

Thoroughly review your anti-harassment policy. This must include a restated commitment to a harassment-free work environment. Your training is an important opportunity to stress the importance of reporting harassment concerns and to again reassure employees they will be protected from retaliation if they report misconduct.

Frontline supervisors are an employer’s eyes and ears. They are the people who are most likely to learn of potential harassment issues. Harassment training for supervisors should be conducted separately from other employees. They should understand their responsibility to report all possible harassment to human resources or management. Explain that failure of a supervisor to report harassment can lead to a lawsuit, with the supervisor named as an individual defendant based on their failure to report.

Your investigations

Actions speak louder than words. Despite your best efforts at confidentiality, in most places the office grapevine is alive and well. And how you handle harassment complaints will be watched with great interest by employees.

Obtain advice or training for your human resource or managers charged with investigating complaints. Act promptly and reasonably throughout the process. Don’t reject out-of-hand anonymous complaints. The same is true for allegations of harassment that occurred in the past. There may be legitimate reasons the concerns were voiced anonymously or delayed. Your investigations should focus on balanced fact-finding and determining whether there is a problem that should be addressed before it erupts into a much more serious issue.

Your endgame

What is your ultimate goal? To create and maintain a workplace that values and rewards respect, professionalism and inclusion. To do that, you must be prepared to address and stop harassing behavior that undermines a productive and respectful work environment.