Hostile Work Environment Refresher: What Employers Should (Still) Be Thinking About

POSTED BY JENNIFER T. WILLIAMS ON DECEMBER 9, 2011

Workplace harassment is back in the news again recently, both in terms of allegations against high-profile public figures and the increasing frequency with which juries have been awarding multi-million dollar verdicts to employees.  With this heightened awareness of workplace harassment of all types, a refresher of workplace steps every employer can take to avoid harassment claims is particularly timely.

Employers should be proactive in preventing and addressing harassment issues, both from a legal standpoint and the standpoint of supporting positive workplace morale.  The following measures are essential to addressing workplace harassment:

  • Implement a comprehensive anti-harassment policy which expressly prohibits all forms of verbal and non-verbal harassment, including touching, lewd comments, jokes or references, epithets, slurs and nicknames. The policy should explain that such conduct by managers, supervisors, employees, customers, and third parties is also prohibited. The policy should contain a strong anti-retaliation provision applicable to all complaints.
  • Incorporate a complaint procedure for employees who have believe they have been harassed or have witnessed harassing conduct. Employees should have multiple options for submitting complaints to avoid being forced to make complaints to the alleged harasser.  Encourage employees to come forward with complaints where necessary.
  • Ensure that these policies are properly communicated and distributed to all employees. Policy distribution and acknowledgement during new hire orientation is important as well as annual or bi-annual refreshers so that employees are reminded of the employer’s rules and expectations for workplace conduct.
  • Train all employees on the importance of anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies, including both supervisors and non-supervisors.  Set the tone that compliance is critical enough to necessitate training from the top to bottom of the organization.
  • Safeguard against retaliation by conducting prompt, confidential investigations.  Communicate to employees that complaints will result in discipline against the harasser, including termination where appropriate.
  • Take action where necessary to address and eliminate harassing conduct.  Such actions may include changing the employee’s supervisor; reversing an unwarranted tangible action (such as demotion, pay reduction, or schedule change); disciplinary action up to termination of the harasser; individualized coaching/training; or a combination of these actions.
  • Create an active, visible human resources presence in the workplace so that employees are familiar with and feel comfortable addressing workplace issues with human resources personnel.

For more information on these issues, the EEOC provides extensive enforcement and policy guidance on employer liability for harassment:
http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/harassment.html
http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/currentissues.html

The Florida Commission on Human Relations also provides an informational video on sexual harassment.

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