You want your employees to be able to work in a comfortable, non-threatening environment. But whether through deliberate malice or ignorance, employees who harass others can quickly make a once-welcoming workplace feel threatening and even dangerous, as well as put the organization at legal risk.
Here are six tips on how to prevent harassment in your workplace.
Know What It Is
It can be difficult to talk about and explain harassment, since it can take so many different forms.
“Most employers have some knowledge of what sexual harassment is and what it looks like, but other forms include race, religion, nationality and disability, to name a few,” says employment attorney Michael Melder of MelderLaw, PLLC.
Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on an individual’s membership in a protected class that is severe and pervasive enough to alter terms and conditions of employment or create a hostile work environment, says Beth Zoller, legal editor at XpertHR, an online service that provides guidance on employment laws and regulations.
Harassment may be verbal, written, physical or visual. It may take the form of slurs or negative stereotypes, rude and offensive jokes, or any threatening, intimidating or hostile acts intended to insult a particular individual or group based on protected class status, Zoller says.
Most employers with 15 employees or more are subject to federal laws regarding different forms of harassment; state laws may increase coverage, Melder says.
Clear anti-harassment policies are critical in heading off trouble, Zoller says. When everyone is on the same page about what harassment is, there’s less room for misunderstandings. Your policy should include a clear definition of harassment, Zoller says, including information about the different forms harassment takes.
The policy should then describe how employees should report harassment, whom to report it to, and the consequences for harassment.
Communicate the Policy
It isn’t enough to have a policy -- people have to be aware of it.
The policy should be included in an employee handbook, Zoller says. Include a page that employees sign to show they’ve received the policy. Include information on a multi-channel reporting procedure that allows allowing employees to bring complaints to more than one member of management.
Review and Revisit
Don’t set a policy and then forget it. Managers should regularly review the employer’s anti-harassment policy with employees, Melder says. Make sure employees understand the policy by asking questions informally and sharing hypothetical examples so everyone regularly gets a mini refresher course in what harassment is.
Empower Your People
Managers need to empower employees to stand up to harassment, Melder says. Make it clear that the organization will not tolerate harassment, and ensure everyone understands the channels for reporting it. Harassment must be investigated and addressed, Melder says, but that’s impossible to do if managers don’t know it’s happening.
Train Your Workers
Most importantly, you can take a stand against harassment in the workplace with proper education.
Regular training for both employees and supervisors so that they know how to identify, report and respond to instances of harassment is key to prevention, Zoller says.
To be effective, the training should clearly delineate what is acceptable and unacceptable workplace conduct, and explain that the workplace extends to any place where employer business is conducted or when employees are on company time. This includes lunch breaks, company happy hours, business trips and holiday parties, Zoller says.
The training should also review the policy, ensure employees and supervisors know how to bring harassment complaints, and assure employees and supervisors that they will not be retaliated against for bringing harassment complaints even if the underlying allegations are ultimately ruled to lack merit.
The EEOC reports that training is the best tool to prevent harassment. A complete, comprehensive training program can be a great first step to eliminate harassment and at the very least, can minimize the impact of harassment damages.
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