Did you know a single harassment lawsuit can cost more than $100,000 to defend? This number doesn’t include the potential price tag of a judgment in favor of the harassed employee, which can be many times more than this amount. Given these staggering numbers, there’s no question that a single harassment claim could shut down most small businesses.
What can you do to protect yourself? You’re a business owner — not a human resources expert. And your business may not be big enough to add an HR professional to your staff. Fortunately, you can take clear, affordable steps that help you maintain a harassment-free workplace and protect your company against lawsuits.
Workplace Harassment Prevention Is Key
“The best approach to harassment is to prevent it before it starts,” says Ashley H. Kaplan, Esq., Senior Employment Law Attorney at ComplyRight. “Simple steps go a long way toward protecting your business.”
To create a respectful, harassment-free workplace, you should:
- Develop a no-harassment policy. Your company’s workplace harassment policy should:
- Define harassment and specific types of prohibited conduct — and include examples
- Encourage employees to report harassment immediately
- Explain the procedures for internal complaints
- Indicate that complaints will be treated confidentially as much as possible under the circumstances (never guarantee complete confidentiality)
- Emphasize that all complaints will be taken seriously and investigated promptly, thoroughly, and impartially
- Confirm that appropriate corrective action will be taken (when warranted)
- Designate at least two contacts within your company to receive harassment complaints.
Sometimes, a harassed employee chooses not to complain because the person doing the harassing is also the obvious choice to file a complaint (for example, a direct supervisor or general manager). To avoid this situation, designate and train at least two individuals (preferably one male and one female) to hear and document employee harassment concerns. Be sure to include their names and contact information as part of the complaint procedures in your non-harassment policy.
- Distribute and communicate the company harassment policy.
Provide a policy document to employees that they must read, sign and date — and keep a copy of the signed document in their personnel files. In addition, reinforce your company’s policy with a notice displayed in an area where all employees gather, such as a break room.
- Enlist employees and supervisors in workplace harassment prevention training.
Anti-harassment policies are only as effective as the employees and managers who follow these policies. Surprisingly, many employees don’t know what is considered harassing behavior nor do managers know how to recognize and respond to it. This is where regular training comes in. With a few exceptions under state law, you don’t have to conduct the training yourself or hire a professional. Instead, look into complete training solutions to do the bulk of the work for you.
“Some states, such as California, require employers to conduct harassment training,” Kaplan says. “Whether mandated or not, training is crucial for building awareness and preserving certain legal defenses. It also can bring issues to light that can be resolved internally, issues that otherwise could escalate to legal actions.”
What If Your Business Receives a Workplace Harassment Complaint?
Employees should feel comfortable sharing their workplace concerns, including harassment on the job. Here are some tips on what to do if your business receives a complaint:
- Listen to the details of the complaint and let the employee know you take his or her concerns seriously
- Prepare a written report that outlines the details of the complaint
- Choose an appropriate investigator who will conduct interviews, review documentation and record findings
- Act quickly — the EEOC urges employers to respond within 48 hours of receiving a complaint
“Consider hiring an attorney or consultant if you don’t have a qualified internal investigator,” Kaplan says. “An outsider can offer valuable perspective and even could lend credibility to your defense if a legal dispute arises.”
How to Handle Work Relationships After a Harassment Claim Is Filed
When it comes to harassment prevention (and response to incidents), you must be especially careful to avoid retaliation. In 2017, retaliation dominated the list of cases handled by the EEOC. Of the more than 84,000 charges filed with the agency in this period, almost half (48.8%) involved employer retaliation.
Retaliation comes in many forms, but it typically involves any action against an employee after he or she has engaged in “protected activity,” such as making an internal complaint, filing a charge with a government agency (the EEOC and others) or acting as a witness in an investigation.
Improper responses may include transferring, demoting or firing the employee; refusing a promotion or raise; reducing work hours; excluding the employee from meetings and other company-related activities; or creating an uncomfortable or hostile work environment.
In addition to avoiding activity that could be considered retaliation for reporting harassment, be sure to include an anti-retaliation policy in your employee handbook. The policy should emphasize your firm stance against retaliation, encouraging employees to come forward with concerns and explaining the procedures to do so.
Make your business stronger with this essential, comprehensive training program — it covers all forms of harassment in the workplace and includes specific guidelines that every employee must understand to support a harassment-free work environment.