Workplace harassment takes on many forms, sometimes making it difficult to tell the difference between normal office banter and offensive or unlawful behavior. Most of us agree that we want our workplace to have a friendly and enjoyable environment. We need to be aware, however, that employees have different backgrounds, senses of humor, sensitivity, disabilities, etc. Good humor to one person may be perceived as offensive to another. Joking, teasing, nicknames, even displayed photos or religious items, can unintentionally offend a coworker and sometimes rise to the level of unlawful behavior.
So where is the line in the sand? How do you know when it has been crossed? Good judgment and awareness of your employees’ differences is fundamental. You can take steps to encourage and promote a harassment-free environment by having (i) a written policy in your handbook prohibiting harassment, (ii) a commitment to communicating and following the policy, and, (iii) well-informed human resources personnel and quality legal counsel versed in employment law. In drafting a policy, keep in mind that it must comply with federal law and the laws of every state in which you have employees.
In addition to formal policies and procedures, there are some practical steps you can take to encourage a harassment-free environment and protect your company from claims and lawsuits. Here are some basic suggestions to consider:
- Communicate your written policy and consider annual training, particularly for management and supervisors.
- Lead by example. Of course, it is totally acceptable to make jokes, but you and management should exercise good judgment in your words and actions. Remember that unwelcome physical contact should always be avoided.
- Have an open door policy. One of the most important factors in mitigating harassment issues is to make sure that all employees have an easy method for being heard. In addition to having the policy in your handbook, make sure that the work environment supports the policy. Having an open door policy that employees don’t feel comfortable using is like having no policy at all.
- Take employee complaints seriously. Even if a complaint seems exaggerated or simply untrue, take the time to look into the circumstances before dismissing it. Depending on the complaint, you may need to investigate. An investigation can be as simple as talking to each person involved. Sometimes an employee just needs to be heard. For serious or widespread harassment issues, you may consider hiring an attorney to do a more formal and extensive investigation.
- Address any inappropriate behavior. If you conclude that there is harassment, take measures to stop it and prevent it from escalating. Your actions should be consistent with the severity of the unwelcome behavior. Sometimes all it takes is a simple apology. More serious issues may call for disciplinary action. In either case, your actions can make the difference between an internal complaint and a full-blown lawsuit.
- Remember that a hostile work environment is a form of harassment. Sometimes even non-work related activity can be unlawful. For example, an employee who regularly tells inappropriate jokes to a friend on the phone, offending coworkers within earshot. A bystander can be subject to harassment even if the behavior is not directed to the bystander. Also, keep in mind that the forwarding of inappropriate emails, or displaying offensive pictures on a computer screen, can cause a hostile work environment.
- Importantly, do not retaliate against an employee who brings a complaint. Like harassment, retaliation can take many forms and can also be unintentional. For instance, you may be inclined to move a complainant’s workstation away from the alleged offender; however, the complainant could perceive the move as negative and claim retaliation.
Any discussion relating to policy language and/or coverage requirements is non-exhaustive and provided for informational purposes only. For details on coverage provided by your specific policy, please refer to your policy.