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When harassment spills over into the workplace

Gavel to Gavel

published in The Journal Record | February 27, 2020

As Oklahoma lawmakers make their way through the 2020 legislative session, I thought I would take a moment to look back at significant employment-related legislation passed in 2019.

For employers, 2019 was the year of the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana and Patient Protection Act — also known as the Unity Bill — and we focused our efforts on understanding and reacting to the new employment rights it created. But another employment-focused bill passed in 2019 went more unnoticed, and it deserves a little fanfare. The Protection from Workplace Harassment and Violence Act became effective on Nov. 1 and it is a valuable tool for employers.

Harassment, violence, and domestic abuse are an all-too-common problem for Oklahomans. And sometimes those problems find their way into the workplace. An employee’s personal life may result in a harasser appearing at work to further that harassing behavior. Or he or she may repeatedly call and threaten the employee or co-employees, creating a fearful or abusive work environment for everyone. But what can an employer do when a harassment or domestic abuse issue spills over into the workplace? Does an employer have a moral or legal duty to intervene? And if so, what tools does it have to respond?

The familiar Victim Protection Order process is available only to individuals. An employer, as an entity, cannot seek a VPO to stop harassment. And where the victims choose not to seek VPOs themselves, for any number of valid reasons, an employer is often left waiting for a harasser to appear live and in person before it can seek law enforcement assistance. But as of Nov. 1, the Act allows an employer to directly seek an injunction against any individual engaging in harassment that affects the workplace.

Harassment is defined as any repeated conduct directed at an employer, an employee, or any person who enters a workplace that would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress – including threats of violence. Among other things, the Act permits a court to prohibit the defendant from coming near the employer’s property or place of business, and from contacting any person associated with the employer during his or her performance of work duties.

Given the limitations of VPOs and the reluctance that some individuals may have in pursuing them, the Protection from Workplace Harassment and Violence Act is a great new tool for Oklahoma employers.

This article appeared in the February 27, 2020, issue of The Journal Record. It is reproduced with permission from the publisher. © The Journal Record Publishing Co.