Human Capital Management, Risk Management

Are You Educated on Workplace Harassment Policies?

/ January 5, 2018 January 5, 2018

While an employer’s hiring and firing practices may present the greatest risk for litigation, lawsuits based on a company’s employment practices can happen for many reasons. Poorly written policies or a manager’s style can embroil a business in the complaint of a single employee.

Workplace harassment can come from a lack of managerial action as easily as from offensive behavior. A company’s risk level is reduced when employees have a solid understanding of company policies, as well as employees’ rights and responsibilities. It is the employer’s legal duty to communicate workplace conduct policies and to ensure every employee understands and adheres to them.

Harassment

Workplace harassment is one of the most difficult risks for an employer to control. Whereas most forms of litigation are based on claims of deceitful or improper actions by company management, harassment suits usually seek to blame management for the ignorant, inappropriate or hateful actions of their employees.

Harassment is any form of malicious or exploitative behavior that alienates or damages an individual to the point of affecting employment conditions. Harassment can be caused by co-workers or managers, either individually or in groups. When the harassment is pervasive or repeated, the situation creates a hostile work environment.

No matter what party is responsible for the harassment, the employer could be implicated in an employee’s complaint. While it may be difficult for an isolated incident of co-worker harassment to be blamed on management, every instance of harassment must be regarded as extremely serious. Managers are responsible for promptly and thoroughly investigating and documenting all cases.

Types of Harassment

Though harassment comprises a variety of offenses, one of its more common forms is sexual harassment. While there are blatant acts of sexual harassment (threatening to fire subordinates if they do not grant sexual favors; an openly discriminatory system of promotion and pay), some less aggressive forms can be the result of an employee paying too much attention to a co-worker or an improper joke that had no direct target.

What constitutes as sexual harassment is not always clear to people. Opinions on offensive behavior vary widely, and courts often have to rule on what is defined as normal behavior. Generally, if an employee feels uncomfortable or harassed, he or she should report it immediately so the offensive behavior can be stopped.

An employer can take proactive steps to help prevent harassment and negligence litigation, which includes employee training, signed documentation of the training, and an agreement of understanding and willingness to comply with company standards. Training should happen on a regular basis, not just when employees are hired. Demonstrating and reminding workers of the severity of harassment can keep adverse actions from occurring and can demonstrate in court that managers made genuine preventive efforts.

Necessities of a Harassment Suit

Handbook policies and managers are representatives of a company and its culture. If either causes an employee to be ignored, punished or fired for a “protected attribute,” it will be viable grounds for a harassment case. To minimize this risk, companies must have trustworthy individuals in positions of authority and establish clear, unbiased handbook policies.

Typically, a claim of a hostile work environment succeeds only if the claimant first made his or her employer aware of the situation and the employer failed to take appropriate steps to correct the problem.

Employers should recognize that being able to prevent harassment litigation from being successful does not prevent the expensive litigation from occurring. Companies and managers take every step possible to keep employees from feeling harassed. Goodwill toward employees and an effort to accommodate concerns can prevent a host of legal issues. Most lawyers will not accept plaintiff cases unless an employer has disregarded the concerns of an employee.

Documentation

Proper action by managers and HR representatives is of little value if it is not properly documented. If a suit is filed, the employer will need to provide proof of the facts pertaining to the suit. This may include proof of policies, training and management’s response the complainant’s original complaint. An employer needs solid proof that its managers took steps to prevent problems and inform employees about their rights. In addition, the employer must prove that when problems occurred, management responded promptly and appropriately.

Having employees read and agree to company policies provided in an employee handbook is a key method a company might use to protect itself and educate its workers. Handbooks should be written carefully and kept up to date. They should include policies as well as the employees’ responsibilities and rights. Managers should be subject to the handbook as well and carry out all investigations and evaluations with the rules of the handbook in mind. Handbooks must comply with local, state and federal laws. The employer may wish to have the handbook reviewed by legal counsel.

While not all risk of harassment complaints can be eliminated, well-written policies, management and employee training can lessen their occurrence.

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