Preventing workplace harassment means you prohibit inappropriate behavior by co-workers, clients, and vendors toward your employees. It supports the intent of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws meant to protect your staff. Identifying and preventing workplace harassment is crucial to a healthy productive work environment. We’ll provide nine tips showing how to prevent harassment in the workplace.
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How to Prevent Harassment in the Workplace
Many employers wonder how to prevent all types of workplace harassment. Some larger firms assign a person in HR for workers to contact with harassment complaints. Most require those who feel harassed to file a formal complaint. The best companies write policies and provide training to managers and staff to educate them on what’s appropriate and what’s not. All of these strategies are great options for dealing with and preventing workplace harassment.
Here are our suggestions for how to prevent harassment in the workplace:
1. Familiarize Yourself With Workplace Harassment Laws
If you really want to know how to prevent harassment in the workplace, it’s best to educate yourself on all federal and state labor laws. Many labor laws specifically address workplace discrimination and others like the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), include clauses specifically preventing workers from being harassed based on their confidential health status or family medical situation—including mental illness or domestic violence. Most, but not all anti-discrimination laws, are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
2. Establish a Zero-tolerance Policy
To prevent harassment, you often start by creating an anti-discrimination and workplace harassment policy that addresses your desire to create a legally-compliant and inclusive workforce. It’s best to include a “preventing workplace harassment” policy within the employee handbook and share it with new hires. Include prohibitions against all types of harassment enforced by the EEOC—including both physical harassment (i.e., unwanted touching) and emotional harassment (bullying, ignoring).
Include Examples of Physical Harassment
Physical harassment includes unwanted touching. Standing or leaning too close to a person may also constitute harassment as might throwing objects at them, blocking their path, or whispering in their ear. A common type of workplace harassment is touching co-workers who don’t want to be touched. It may be persistent hugging, massaging a co-worker’s shoulders, or slapping them on a body part as they walk by.
Include Examples of Emotional Harassment
Emotional harassment may be harder to spot. It could be so subtle that you want to give workers a way to report it so that you know it’s occurring. Examples include shunning a worker of a certain race, excluding participants on a work team due to their age or marital status, or any kind of subtle facial expression or gesture that causes a worker in a protected class to feel discriminated against, embarrassed, or excluded.
One of the easiest ways to make sure your company policies are compliant with federal and state anti-harassment laws is to download a legally-sound policy template from Rocket Lawyer. Once you customize the policy with your company specifics you can download and save it for as little as $5. Give Rocket Lawyer a try for $5 or sign up for a monthly legal plan (access all policy templates) for $39.99 per month.
3. Consider Your Culture on Preventing Workplace Harassment
It’s only harassment if behaviors are unwanted and make employees feel uncomfortable. Consider your work culture. For example, skilled labor in an all-male machine shop may find Playboy magazines acceptable in the break room. Salon workers may be fine with hugs, foot massages, or co-workers playing with their hair. A comedy troupe might experiment with racial jokes for an upcoming show. While these aren’t best practices in most workplaces, they might not constitute harassment if everyone’s on the same page.
4. Provide Training on Preventing Workplace Harassment
To prevent harassment, you must educate your managers and employees on when fun or playful behavior crosses the line. To some extent, it’s up to the employee who feels harassed to expose the behavior by doing nothing more than asking the perpetrator to stop. Once your policy is created, come up with types of harassment examples unique to your culture and discuss the importance of preventing harassment in your workplace so that all staff knows what it looks like, that it’s not OK, and how to report issues.
Many HR consultants and training firms offer custom workshops of off-the-shelf programs to help you educate your staff. For a sample training program outline, take a look at our Sexual Harassment Prevention training program which you can download and customize with your own workplace harassment prevention examples.
5. Create a Safe Way for Workers to Share Concerns
Should your policy and training efforts fail to curb inappropriate behavior, your employees will need a safe way to report the harassment. That allows you to address inappropriate behavior before it becomes pervasive and your business devolves into a toxic work environment. Once reported, it’s up to the employer to stop the workplace harassment or risk being held liable for not protecting employees from co-workers’ or managers’ bad behavior.
6. Model Inclusive Behavior
What you as a leader do and say matters. If you trash talk people in general, joke inappropriately, or find it funny to embarrass your team members, no policy is going to override that. To build a culture devoid of workplace harassment, everyone from the top down within the organization needs to model respectful and inclusive behavior.
7. Watch Your Own Words & Actions
With multiple generations and cultures in the workplace, you may find that terms that were acceptable in the past no longer are. Some common words and gestures may offend workers in protected classes, even if accidentally. If a person asks to stop using them, you may want to heed their request. For example, the common thumbs-up sign is actually offensive to some individuals of African descent.
Here are examples of sentences using common words that may cause some to feel harassed:
- Don’t let that “honkey” “Jew” you down on the price. Both terms are offensive.
- Do you “girls” want to go to lunch? Most grown women prefer not to be called girls.
- Did you ask the “old geezer” in the warehouse? Older workers will be offended.
- Go ask “hop along” to join us in the meeting. Disabled workers might feel insulted.
- Where’s “blondie?” Regardless of gender, most prefer not to be described by physical attributes unrelated to the work they do.
8. Take All Complaints Seriously
Even if you don’t find a particular behavior (lewd jokes) offensive, it’s important that you listen to and take all complaints seriously. It’s best to have a process that makes it clear who should be notified and how to notify them. For example, you may suggest concerned employees make a phone call to HR, send an email to their manager, or complete a form with details to be sent to the business owner.
Conduct an Investigation
Once a complaint is filed, it’s best to do a little investigating by talking to the offender, co-workers, and managers to determine if the situation is a one-off or a larger pervasive issue that needs to be addressed. Documenting your findings makes them official. Of course, confidentiality is important too, so don’t file your report in a shared online folder.
Consider this investigative approach for dealing with complaints of harassment in the workplace:
- Listen to the complaint: Keep an open mind, even if the behavior wouldn’t have offended you. (In case of a lawsuit, a court is much more likely to side with an employee or use the “reasonable person” standard.)
- Document all details: Gather concrete information on who, what, where, when, and any witnesses who may be able to corroborate the incident.
- Keep the complaint confidential: Only those who need to know should be brought in to help assess the complaint. That may include the employee’s manager, HR, or the business owner.
- Ask questions: This is often the hardest part because it’s difficult to maintain confidentiality in a “he said / she said” scenario. However, you can ask the accused, managers, and co-workers generic questions about behaviors they have seen without necessarily exposing the complainant. Document those findings.
- Follow up: In some cases, all that’s needed is an apology. In egregious cases, the perpetrator may be reprimanded or terminated. Alternatively, you may wish to revisit your anti-harassment policy and training to assure the offended person that it won’t happen again.
Your documented efforts to prevent, investigate, and resolve employee complaints of harassment may serve as a defense in a lawsuit should an employee who feels harassed fail to concur with your findings, quit, or file a claim. The Society of Human Resource Management’s website, SHRM.org, provides guidelines and sample investigation forms you might find helpful.
9. Never Retaliate
Retaliation is the thing that gets most employers in trouble. In fact, the EEOC reports retaliation is the most common of all claims. Even if the initial claim of harassment turns out to be no big deal, retaliating against a person who complains is against the law. That means you need to respect the confidentiality of the complainer and treat them no differently than if they hadn’t said anything. For example, if an employee complains they’re being harassed by their boss, you can’t demote them to another team as a solution.
Troublesome examples of retaliation might include:
- Talking broadly about the complaint so that others shun the complainer
- Demoting the employee for reporting an issue or transferring them to a less-than-satisfactory job (such as moving them to the night shift)
- Refusing to promote them for fear they’ll “make waves”
- Firing a worker because they’ve voiced a valid discrimination concern
- Excluding women from teams or departments so it doesn’t happen again
In fact, if you or a member of your staff retaliates against the person based on their concerns, you’re likely to end up on the wrong end of a wrongful termination lawsuit. And most likely, you will end up paying unemployment benefits too.
For a complete review of your current HR practices and HR consulting for as low as $99 per month, consider working with Bambee. Its HR experts can provide you with unlimited HR telephone consulting support as well as advise you on how to prevent harassment in the workplace. They’re just a phone call away when real-time issues arise. Sign up on the website for a free consultation.
How Workplace Harassment Happens
The underlying cause of workplace harassment is likely to be nothing more than a lack of clarity at work about what constitutes appropriate workplace behavior and what doesn’t. It’s for this reason that we suggest the best practice of documenting your policy, training employees, and enforcing an anti-harassment culture. Being proactive and providing employees an inclusive work environment goes a long way so employees can do their jobs in a safe, harassment-free environment.
“Harassment takes many shapes in the work environment. It is not only sexual and physical harassment, and the victims are not only women. Workplace harassment also includes microaggression, bullying, ageism, job shaming, verbal threats, derogatory comments, discriminating or exclusionary behavior, and other forms of offensive conduct.”
—Diane Stegmeier, Founder & CEO of WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now)
If you lack the resources to hire an HR manager to assess your EEOC compliance, consider working with an HR consultancy like Bambee for as low as $99 per month. Bambee serves as your small business “HR person” by providing you unlimited consulting and answering all your labor and employment law questions.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
If preventing workplace harassment seems like common sense—it is. However, it’s the unique scenarios that cause employers to have questions. We’ve answered some for you below, and encourage you to post additional questions to our forum.
As a business owner am I responsible if one of my workers is harassed by a customer?
In a word, yes. It’s your job as an employer to protect your workers. If a customer is verbally abusing or violating anti-discrimination laws, it’s on you to step in and stop the behavior. Perhaps you have to do so by warning a client that you’ll cancel their contract if they don’t stop with the rude jokes, or you may have to eject a patron who refuses to be waited on by a person of a certain race.
How will I know if cyberbullying is occurring?
Some employers monitor their workers’ business-related online accounts such as email or Slack threads. That’s an option. However, the best way to know when any kind of bullying occurs is to make it clear to all staff that you are open to and will take all claims seriously as part of your zero-tolerance anti-harassment policy. If they feel safe in reporting issues, they’ll most likely let you know.
I fired a person for poor performance, and now she’s claiming workplace harassment. What can I do?
Employers are best served by having a formal performance management process and solid documentation reasons for termination. HR consultants can help you set these up. Documented proof that the employee’s performance was poor plus documentation of any harassment claims and how they were handled will help your case. To protect yourself, it’s often helpful to hire a labor law attorney or work with an HR consulting service like Bambee.
Preventing workplace harassment requires you to challenge workers when their words and actions come into conflict with labor laws and best practices. You can do this through policy, education, and role modeling inclusive practices that provide a safe and productive work environment. It starts with you being aware of your requirements as an employer to prevent and eliminate discriminatory workplace practices.
For easily downloadable policy templates, you can visit Rocket Lawyer’s website, customize an anti-harassment policy template, and download it for just $5. Consider signing up for full-service access to legally compliant policies and templates for as low as $39.99 per month. Give Rocket Lawyer a try for $5, and save yourself from potential fines and lawsuits.