Prevent harassment now, don’t pay later.

Employers must be proactive to prevent liability for unlawful harassment.

by Debra Reynolds

iStock_000023266888SmallA myriad of federal and state laws protect individuals from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Harassment based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other laws protect against harassment based on age and disability. Some states prohibit harassment based on additional criteria, such as sexual orientation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently increased its focus on harassment, and employment lawsuits continue to rise. Organizations can protect their employees and prevent liability by proactively establishing strong, clear policies that define and explicitly prohibit harassment based on any protected status and procedures that guide employees and employers in responding to acts of harassing behavior.

Policies and procedures should be stated in plain language that employees can easily understand, and they should include a complaint procedure that allows several reporting contacts, including the ability for an employer to bypass his or her supervisor when making a complaint. Non-retaliation is another important piece of any harassment policy, which should be written to protect the complainant, witnesses, investigator, and any others participating in the harassment investigation. Confidentiality is not always possible, but information about a harassment investigation should be limited to those directly involved in the process.

Another important element of any harassment prevention program is supervisor training, which is required by law in a few states and is a best practice for all employers. Supervisors should be able to identify inappropriate conduct and be required to report such conduct to HR, and they should be trained on avoiding a hostile work environment and the importance of non-retaliation.

Finally, employers must train employees on what behavior is inappropriate, how they can report harassment, and what consequences may result from harassment. Employees often come from different backgrounds, so what seems to be obviously inappropriate to some may not to others. Employers must establish clear guidelines and strongly enforce them to create a culture in which harassment is not tolerated.

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