Harassment and discrimination can spell big trouble for a business. It can cause disruption in the workplace and lower employee morale. It can also result in lawsuits that have the potential to cost employers hundreds of thousands of dollars — or even more.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that employers can be found liable for harassment and discrimination claims, even if the employer wasn’t directly aware that harassment and discrimination were occurring in the workplace. Employers are expected to take a proactive stance, and an employer who has not addressed the issue at work is vulnerable in the event of a lawsuit.
What are harassment and discrimination?
Harassment and discrimination are defined by federal, state and local laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, creed, religion and national origin. Other laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, disability and pregnancy.
Harassment can include any verbal, written or physical act that makes employees uncomfortable at work or interferes with their ability to perform their jobs. It can include jokes, emails, cartoons, drawings or other material that is suggestive or reflects negatively on a protected class. It can include slurs or offensive language.
What can you do about it?
As an employer, you can be held accountable for all forms of unlawful discrimination and harassment, so it pays to have a proactive policy to protect your business and your employees. Here are some ways you can begin to address the issue:
Create a harassment and discrimination prevention policy: Make sure employees know that you will not tolerate harassment or discrimination. A formal written policy outlining your commitment to a harassment and discrimination-free workplace is a good way to start. Many employers include such a statement in employee handbooks that are distributed to all employees and collect a signed statement of understanding from each employee. Others combine a written statement with a mandatory employee training session.
Outline steps employees should take: Your policy should also include a method for employees who feel they are being harassed or discriminated against to report the behavior. A formal investigation process is also important. Some companies ask employees to report their concerns to their immediate supervisor first or to the next person in the chain of command to begin an investigation. Others direct employees to bring their concerns directly to the office manager or HR department. The important thing is to make sure the method is clear, easily accessible and highly confidential.
Make sure employees know you and your management team take your policy seriously: One of the best ways you can gain employee buy-in for your policy is to make sure you and your managers demonstrate that you believe it is important. Whether during a meeting or in informal settings, it’s a good idea to stress the amount of harm harassment and discrimination can cause and to make sure employees know they can come to you if they’re not treated fairly.
Taking care of business
In today’s competitive business environment, it can seem like there is too much information to process and too many tasks to perform. It can be tempting to put issues like harassment and discrimination prevention on the back burner, particular for a company that started out small but is growing rapidly. However, taking the time to establish and communicate a proactive policy is a wise move — one that can help you protect your company and build a stronger workplace in the long run.