Confession time. And we are talking full honesty here.
Do you ever think, “if I could just eliminate the human element from my business, I would have a lot fewer problems?”
Yes, your staff is talented and good at their jobs-which is why you hired them. However, you can't always take the human, or the bad behavior, out of the professional. Gossip, office politics and the biggest headache of them all, workplace harassment or bullying takes away from having a productive, enjoyable company culture.
Workplace harassment is one of the most difficult liabilities for employers to manage and is an ever-present issue. Harassment suits usually seek to blame management for the inappropriate, ignorant or hateful actions of their employees.
Even if the harassment is done by an employee, as an employer, you are still implicated in a complaint. Any time there is a claim of harassment, managers are responsible for documenting all details, along with investigating all aspects of the case.
What Qualifies as Workplace Harassment?
Workplace harassment comes in a variety of forms, with sexual harassment being one of the most common, but nebulous claims to investigate.
Sexual harassment is not always blatant such as threatening to fire or punish an employee if they do not grant sexual favors or discrimination for a promotion or pay. There are less aggressive forms such as an employee paying too much attention to a colleague or a joke that crosses the line for some of your staff.
General claims of harassment should be taken just as seriously as sexual harassment and include discriminatory behavior based on race, ethnicity, disability or religion.
Harassment is not just limited to actions brought on by a supervisor or manager as it includes actions brought on by other employees, a supervisor in a different department, contractors, and even customers. While one off-the-cuff remark might not be enough for an employee to bring suit against a company or their harassers; allowing, ignoring, and not preventing any harassment decreases morale, productivity, and increases chances of a lawsuit.
How to Prevent Harassment and Bullying in Your Company
Unfortunately, you can't control how people behave even in a professional setting. As a business owner or manager, there are some policies, procedures, and expectations you can put in place to minimize the occurrence of a harassment suit.
Ensure you have an updated employee handbook that clearly defines what harassment is, provide examples and advise management will not tolerate it at any level. Your handbook should include an overview of employees’ responsibilities and rights. Handbooks must comply with local, state and federal laws. To ensure compliance, you may wish to have the handbook reviewed by legal counsel.
Review the handbook information with each new employee and, if revisions are made, make sure all employees are notified and confirm they have read and understood all revisions to the policy.2. All employees should feel comfortable if they need to report harassment for any reason.
You should encourage employees to report matters early on to prevent any escalation and establish an efficient process for handling complaints and grievances. Employees should be able to easily report potential harassment issues such as an anonymous hotline or an Open-Door Policy. Human Resources should be accessible and ready to investigate all complaints without experiencing repercussions.
Managers and HR representatives should take immediate and appropriate action when an employee comes forward to report harassment; documenting all details, proof of policies, training and management's response to the complainant's original complaint.
You should have policies, practices and formal documents for handling complaints; every complaint should be logged and investigated using established methods. A separate and confidential file must be kept, which includes all documentation and notes about the complaint. The documentation should include a statement relevant to how the complaint was resolved and the steps that were taken to ensure the situation will not recur.
Most harassment cases come after there have been several incidents, however, there are situations in which an employer can be sued for negligence after the first incident of co-worker harassment. If a new hire is accused of physical harassment and that individual has previously been reported or arrested for similar behavior before being hired, a plaintiff could claim the employer showed negligence in hiring. Your HR team should do thorough background checks on job candidates before hiring to reduce this risk.
Consult with your business insurance broker on coverage solutions to help mitigate expenses when unavoidable claims are filed. Our professional liability advisors commonly recommend businesses of all sizes include an Employment Practices Liability insurance (EPL) policy. An EPL policy covers the company, directors, officers, managers, and employees against claims brought by employees, former employees, and candidates for employment. Adding an EPL policy into your business' risk management strategy will provide you with access to many resources such as hotlines to talk to attorneys who specialize in Employment Practices Liability Law, programs to create an Employee Handbook, and training tools.
Your broker can also offer resources to educate and prepare your human resource team and management staff on best practices to avoid harassment claims. As an employer, you have the responsibility to demonstrate reasonable steps are taken to prevent harassment in the workplace, correctly report situations, and give employee’s resources to remediate harassment situations.