The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 30,000 complaints of harassment in the workplace during 2009. It found 4% of them to have merit, and the employers involved paid $80 million in penalties. That same year, it received more than 12,000 complaints of sexual harassment, 33,000 complaints of racial discrimination, and 11,000 complaints of discrimination based on national origin. The employers who were found to have permitted these actions were fined more than $150 million, and these dollar amounts do not include settlements of lawsuits between the employers and affected individuals. The lesson: Allowing a hostile work environment is bad for an employer’s bottom line. Courts have ruled that a work environment is hostile if the speech or conduct occurring there is severe or pervasive enough to offend a reasonable person. This includes things like:
- Sexually explicit remarks
- Sexually explicit displays, such as calendars, posters, and screen savers
- Frequent use of language that denigrates members of one sex, racial, or ethnic group
- Sexually or racially oriented jokes and e-mails
- Unwanted physical contact
- Unwanted solicitations
Managers can be responsible for harassing behaviors in the workplace, even if they do not participate in them. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a company may be legally liable for sexual harassment by supervisors even if the employees do not report it. In a separate case, the court ruled that companies may have legal liability even where the employees do not demonstrate that they suffered a tangible loss. However, there are several things employers can do to keep their workplaces free of harassment.
- Develop and enforce a written workplace policy against all forms of discrimination and harassment. The policy should define prohibited acts, consequences for violating the policy, procedures for reporting violations, and a clear statement that there will not be retribution against those who complain. Every employee should receive a copy of it. It might be necessary to provide training on what constitutes harassment and what employees can do about it.
- Managers must themselves not act in ways that might appear to be harassment, and they must take steps to stop any harassment of which they become aware.
- Follow the established procedures for dealing with harassment. Report all complaints to the human resources manager or other responsible staff person. Conduct a prompt and thorough investigation. Take appropriate action, if called for, against the perpetrator. Depending on the severity of the offense, these actions can range from a verbal warning to a written reprimand to termination of employment.
- Update the computer usage policy to include prohibiting accessing Internet sites that are inappropriate for a work environment. The policy should also warn employees against circulating sexually explicit jokes and materials through the e-mail system. Install filtering software to block employees from visiting pornographic websites. Monitor Internet usage and report to human resources incidents of employees visiting offensive sites. Add provisions to vendor contracts requiring vendors working onsite to abide by the employer’s computer usage rules.
All businesses should consider buying Employment Practices Liability insurance (EPLI). This insurance covers amounts an employer is legally liable to pay because of employment offenses such as discrimination, harassment, discrimination in hiring, firing, or promoting, and other acts. The insurance also covers the costs of defending a claim. Even well-run workplaces might become targets of employee lawsuits, so it is important to have this protection as a backstop.
The workplace should be a safe environment where employees can perform up to their potential. With appropriate rules and attention, managers can keep their workplaces harassment free.