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by Michael Murphy / May 21, 2020

Workplace harassment often goes under-reported, but it has a strong effect on productivity. Some forms of harassment are unlawful, but any kind of harassment increases absenteeism, increases employee turnover, and can even escalate into violence.

What Constitutes Harassment?

Harassment is essentially any unwanted behavior against an employee. Harassment can be at the peer level, or it can be from above. It can also come from customers or clients (for example, many hotel housekeepers carry panic buttons in case they are sexually harassed or even assaulted by guests).

Two specific forms of harassment are unlawful if based on a protected class (race, sex (which includes gender identity), religion, ability, national origin, sexual orientation, or parental status. The two forms are:

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

“Sleep with me if you want that promotion” is a classic example of quid pro quo harassment; sexual favors being demanded in exchange for a promotion. Generally, the perpetrator has some level of power over the victim, and can make these kinds of formal decisions.

Quid pro quo can also take the form of religious harassment. For example, mandatory attendance at an overtly religious holiday party, with action taken against those who do not attend could also be quid pro quo.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment is when the conduct of supervisors, coworkers, customers, or anyone else with whom the victim has to interact creates an atmosphere which is intimidating, hostile or environment. This might include off-color jokes, unwanted touching, sexually suggestive or racially insensitive pictures, using slurs, crude language, “pranks” that sabotage the victim’s work. For example, calling a secretary fat, repeatedly, might constitute a hostile work environment.

The harassment must be considered abusive by the person affected (in other words, if somebody is exchanging off-color jokes with a work partner, not involving anyone else, and they both find it funny, it’s not harassment) and must be severe and pervasive enough to look abusive to a reasonable person. The second part is to prevent malicious complaints; which can be a form of harassment in and of themselves.

What do Employees Need to Know

Employees need to have an understanding of what harassment is. Having a solid harassing conduct policy helps; ideally, harassment should be nipped in the bud before it becomes illegal. Employees need to know what the rules are and they need to abide by them. It also helps to have a policy on workplace romance (which can lead to all kinds of issues). So, basically, they need to know:

  • What harassment is and is not.
  • How to report harassment (and what their rights are when and if they do; it’s absolutely vital to have policies that encourage employees to come forward. These protections must extend to gig and contract workers, who often fail to report harassment because they fear they will simply be replaced.
  • What systems are in place to protect them when working alone or in vulnerable situations; for example, the location of panic buttons or how to quickly contact security.
  • What the consequences will be for harassing behavior; this might range from being separated from the other worker to dismissal.

What Managers Need to Know

Managers need to know how to create a good anti-harassment policy, in order to make sure employees have the information they need. Legal definitions should be avoided, as most employees won’t understand them. Make sure that your policy:

  • Is not limited to sexual harassment. Unfortunately, many companies do limit their harassment policy to sexual harassment, forgetting or not caring that other kinds of harassment can be just as bad.
  • Does not include actual slurs or hate words (which can obviously make employees upset).
  • Clearly applies not just to employees but to non-employees (contractors), and applies at company sponsored events.
  • Covers e-mail, text messages and social media as well as talking and writing.
  • Provides a means for both employees and contractors to complain that is not through their direct supervisor (as that individual may be the problem) and guarantees confidentiality.

Consider whether to include arbitration; arbitration is faster, less expensive, and less adversarial. However, arbitration has fewer protections for both sides and thus lawyers often recommend that harassment is excluded from arbitration. Courts are actually more likely to protect employers than arbitrators, and many employees, especially when sexual harassment is concerned, want the greater protection of an official record. However, the option of arbitration should be kept open if both sides agree to it.

It’s vital to have systems to protect vulnerable workers, and not all of these are policy. We all hear stories about the vulnerable status of late night gas station workers, for example. Also vulnerable are workers who go to people’s homes. Harassers tend to make sure there aren’t any witnesses before engaging in misconduct and may try to set up situations where they get a worker alone. For example, staying late at a meeting until everyone else has left.

Make sure that employees know that they never have to be alone with anyone who makes them uncomfortable. You should also provide panic buttons to security or, in some cases, the police, for all vulnerable employees. Use buddy systems as much as possible. Remember that your employees deserve protection from harassing and obnoxious customers or clients as well as coworkers.

If the workplace is open to the public, make sure managers and supervisors know that they can expel customers who are causing trouble for their employees.

The most important thing is to have and enforce a proper anti-harassment policy, one which covers things other than sexual harassment, and to promote a culture of coming forward, one free of retaliation and where everyone knows what behavior is not acceptable.

Human resources has to take lead on this; and this means addressing some of the fear of HR that employees may have, the feeling that HR is somehow their enemy. Platinum Group can help with anti-harassment policies. Our database of workers helps you track background checks and complaints, and keep an eye on potential troublemakers. Check out our powerful HR software that covers all of your needs.

And make sure you have a comprehensive harassment policy in place so that toxic employees and belligerent customers are not driving your good people away.

Tags: employee well being Workplace Wellness Resolving Conflict Employee Management HR

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Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy

Michael is the founder of Platinum Group. His passion is in helping businesses to simplify their employee management and accounting processes.