Workplace Harassment: What Should Employers Do to Prevent a Hostile Work Environment?
The issue of sexual harassment and even assault in the workplace has received a lot of attention lately. Famous names from Hollywood to the news media to lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been credibly charged with various types of inappropriate conduct, leading to numerous resignations and in some cases, criminal charges. The exposure of well-known figures has prompted countless others to come forward, showing that the problem of workplace harassment is far more widespread than most people believed.
Though sexual harassment is the most commonly known type of harassment in the workplace, it can take many other forms as well. Workplace harassment is any speech or action that contributes to a hostile or abusive work environment. There is virtually no limit to the ways an employee can be harassed at work. Here are some common examples:
- Physical Appearance: Jokes and disparaging comments about the way someone looks (e.g., weight, dress, etc.), demeaning comments about someone’s race, skin color or national origin, inappropriate sexual comments, unwanted sexual advances, etc.
- Beliefs: Making jokes or disparaging remarks about someone’s religious or political beliefs.
- Disability: Jokes, disparaging remarks, or other forms of harassment or discrimination based on a person’s disability.
- Age: Harassment or discrimination based on a person’s age.
- Marital Status/Sexual/Gender Orientation: Harassment or discrimination because someone is single, married, divorced, gay, or identifies as transsexual.
Addressing Workplace Harassment
The events of this past year should serve as a wake-up call for all organizations. If your company has not properly addressed the potential for harassment in the workplace, it is time to make this an immediate HR priority.
Here are four steps organizations can take to minimize the chances of workplace harassment:
Implement Clear, Coherent, and Strict Zero Tolerance Policies
Policies should be developed with the input of your HR department and legal counsel that make clear that discrimination and harassment in the workplace will not be tolerated. The policies should be comprehensive and easy to read and cover all employees, managers, supervisors, mid-level, and upper-level executives. They should also be in full compliance with all federal, state, and local laws and regulations.
Provide Extensive Workplace Harassment Training for Your Employees
Everyone in the organization needs to be educated and trained on why a strong anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy is necessary, what constitutes inappropriate workplace behavior, how to recognize this behavior, and what steps to take to report it. Managers, supervisors, and upper-level employees should receive more specialized training to ensure that they are setting a good example and that they understand how to properly handle harassment complaints.
Make Sure All Employees Understand and Feel Comfortable with the Complaint Filing Process
The most important takeaway from workplace harassment training should be that employees clearly understand how to file a complaint if they are being harassed (or they witness someone else being harassed) and that they are comfortable with the filing process. The goal is to make sure that, if harassment does occur, employees will not be afraid to report it for fear of reprisal and/or that nothing will be done about it.
Foster a Harassment-Free Workplace Culture
The culture and personality of an organization starts at the top. From the owner(s)/board of directors on down, management must set an example for the rest of the staff that there is no place for workplace harassment or discrimination. Make it known (by words and actions) that bullying, intimidation, demeaning and offensive comments, unwanted physical advances, “quid pro quos”, and all other forms of inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.
Workplace harassment is an issue that can no longer be ignored. Today, it is more important than ever for organizations to take proactive steps to prevent harassment from occurring. And if harassment does happen in the workplace, they must be willing to dismiss those who engage in this behavior, regardless of their position within the organization.