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Tips for Creating a Harassment-Free Workplace

We spend a third of the day in our workplace. Whether in an office or a warehouse, we want a pleasant, if not inviting, work environment. Unfortunately, discrimination and harassment can turn any business into a toxic workplace.

The effects of discrimination and harassment in the workplace are pervasive. It increases absenteeism, higher healthcare costs, and reduced employee retention. A toxic company culture reduces employee morale and production, affecting your bottom line.

Creating a workplace culture that supports all workers and reduces harassment improves morale. Small business owners can often see and prevent workplace harassment easier than larger companies. It just takes some planning.

Creating Anti-Discrimination Policies

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends developing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Get input from employees. Consult with legal professionals to ensure compliance with federal and state laws. Your state may have stricter regulations than federal law.

Incorporate your harassment and discrimination training and policies into your employee handbook. All new employees should have a copy in their hiring packet. All existing employees should get it as soon as it is available.

Your policy should contain:

  • An explanation of prohibited conduct, with plain examples. For instance, "sexual harassment, such as catcalling, whistling, physical contact, touching, groping, etc."
  • An anonymous complaint process with accessible methods of reporting. Complaints should not have to follow a "chain of command" if the employee's supervisor or manager is the harasser.
  • Assurance you will protect confidentiality to the greatest extent possible. Acknowledge that pursuing criminal charges may involve other departments or agencies.
  • Assurance that you will protect complainants and witnesses against retaliation.
  • Assurance that you will take immediate corrective actions after a thorough investigation. Include examples of the type and nature of the corrective procedure.

It's also essential to train employees on your policies. Conduct sexual harassment prevention training and discrimination training. Make this part of your onboarding process for all new hires. Some states have laws requiring mandatory sexual harassment training. Other states "strongly recommend" it.

Other Anti-Discrimination Suggestions

The EEOC recommends employers take a zero-tolerance attitude toward inappropriate behavior. Your business culture may accept certain actions or comments that would be harassment in other settings.

In a workplace study on harassment, an EEOC task force found the "zero-tolerance" concept leads to a "one-size-fits-all" disciplinary approach. This leads to "employee under-reporting of harassment, particularly where they do not want a colleague or co-worker to lose their job over relatively minor harassing behavior — they simply want the harassment to stop."

In light of this, most businesses cannot immediately enact a zero-tolerance policy. The EEOC advises using a reasonable person standard to create a sexual harassment policy. Begin enforcement with reminders and ramp up the disciplinary action. When someone requests that joking or teasing stop, it should stop. It doesn't matter if it's about gender identity or sandwich preference.

Remember that employers are legally obligated to follow federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Some states, such as California, have annual training rules to refresh workers on harassment policies. Get legal advice about the laws in your state.

Handling Harassment Complaints

How you handle discrimination claims determines how harassment issues will continue going forward. You can train employees all day. But how you respond to a charge of discrimination will show your workers you want change.

hostile work environment begins when complaints go unaddressed. Or worse, when the person making the complaint gets treated as the wrongdoer. Take all claims of harassment or discriminatory treatment seriously. Treat harassment claims like any other claim of wrongdoing.

The following tips can help you effectively handle complaints of harassment:

  • Investigate every claim. Interview potential witnesses confidentially in private. Do not assume there will be physical evidence of a harmful encounter.
  • Do not assume the reporter is being "too sensitive." Don't downplay with statements like "You laughed at those jokes before" or "You know Fred is like that." Something is upsetting the employee now. What happened in the past is not relevant.
  • Be alert for phrases like "unprofessional," "inappropriate," or requests to have a different partner. An employee may want to wait to explain the problem. You may need to encourage the employee to give specifics.
  • Do not take sides. Don't ask if they can work it out themselves. Don't attempt to resolve it by reassigning one or the other to a different location or shift.

If your investigation shows harassment has happened, you must follow your own policy. If your policy stated that sexual harassment would result in termination, that must be the outcome. Your policy is only useful if your employees can depend on a serious end to the investigation.

Legal Options for Employers

Employers have a legal obligation to follow federal and state anti-discrimination laws. So, it's important to get legal advice about the requirements in your state.

As an employer, you must create a safe, welcoming environment for all employees. You must have policies in place protecting workers against harassment and discrimination. Contact an employment law attorney today for legal help to follow federal or state laws.

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