Shawn Smith

Article Summary:

Policies and procedures can be put in place to deal with harassment in the workplace.

Harassment In The Workplace

Although laws prohibiting harassment in the workplace have been around for many years, the concept did not really enter the consciousness of the business world until the 1990's. The Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991 ushered in a new era of corporate sensitivity to harassment issues. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), workplace harassment claims almost tripled in the 1990's when compared with the 1980's.

The number of harassment claims continues to rise. On average, workers file over 15,000 claims a year with the EEOC and Fair Employment Practices agencies around the country. And more disturbing, the EEOC reports that the number of egregious cases is escalating dramatically.

How can companies best protect themselves against harassment claims?

First, educate your employees.
In Connecticut, employers with more than 50 employees are required to provide worker training; employers with three or more employees must post information concerning the illegality of sexual harassment in the workplace. New York has no such requirement.

Regardless of whether training is legally mandated, education is a sound investment. Aside from the most overt instances of harassment, most situations are ambiguous. Training increases the sensitivity of all employees about the "gray areas," and will help to foster constructive discussion among workers. In many situations, the accused employees had no previous indication that others found their actions offensive. A sound education program will teach individuals how to let co-workers know when their behavior makes them uncomfortable before the behavior gets out of hand.

All companies should have a Harassment-free Workplace Policy that states clearly and unequivocally that harassment of any type will not be tolerated, defines behavior that constitutes harassment and details a procedure for reporting violations of the policy.
This policy should be distributed and communicated to employees regularly.

When an employee does report an incident of harassment, the manner in which the company handles the claim will often play a large part in determining whether the matter will be resolved - or end up as a statistic at the EEOC or applicable state agency.

It is critical to take all complaints seriously and conduct a proper investigation.
I have observed with some clients a reluctance to investigate a complaint, citing reasons such as, "the accused is our top sales person," or "the complainant is a troublemaker." Do not make assumptions about a situation based on preconceived notions about the parties involved.

Handle the investigation in a responsible and professional manner.
If you do not have employees who know how to conduct a proper internal investigation, it is advisable to hire an attorney or other experienced, independent investigator. Be aware, though, that when using an outside investigator, employers may be subject to the provisions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This act could trigger an obligation for the employer to get permission from the accused party for the third party to conduct the investigation. Understand the laws before you act.

Maintain confidentiality.
While you cannot assure individuals that you interview that you will not share any information, you should inform them that all information will be kept as confidential as possible, and will only be disclosed to those with a "need to know." Treat all persons interviewed with dignity. Avoid jokes or threats, or providing personal opinions about the information discussed. Inform the parties involved that retaliation is forbidden.

Once you analyze the facts, reach a conclusion and take action.
Often, the investigation will yield conflicting information. Many investigations come down to assessing the credibility of the participants, examining the facts and determining the motivations of the individuals.

When the investigation yields a definitive result, take action that corresponds with the severity of the offense, and be consistent.
Even if you are unable to reach a firm conclusion, it is appropriate to warn the accused to avoid similar conduct in the future, and to encourage the complaining party to report any further incidents. Above all, prevent employee perception that the company "does nothing" about complaints. This will only lead workers to seek redress from an outside source.

Shawn Smith is a consultant, speaker, attorney and the founder of Next Level Consulting, LLC, an organizational development and management consulting firm. She has worked with a broad range of public, private and non-profit organizations to develop practical programs and strategies to navigate change, increase individual and organizational effectiveness and exceed business objectives. Shawn is the co-author of The HR Answer Book: An Indispensable Guide for Managers and Human Resources Professionals (AMACOM 2004). Contact her for more information through her web site at www.nextlevel-consulting.com.

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