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Stamping Out Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is back in the headlines once again, so it’s very clear that companies have a lot of work to do to make sure that their managers and supervisors clearly understand its importance and how to prevent it.

Recent examples:

Bill O’Reilly Is Forced Out at Fox News

Hotels Urged to Combat Sexual Harassment Against Female Employees

I recently attended a workshop hosted by AIM (Associated Industries of Massachusetts), and one of the case studies was a manufacturing company where sexual harassment of female employees by one supervisor had been going on for years, without complaint, for fear of job loss and/or retaliation. It was also felt that the HR Manager, a male, would not understand or take a complaint seriously, and there was no other avenues for the women to express what was going on.

This true case underscores that it’s not enough for companies to provide sexual harassment training once a year and think that this solves the problem. It requires managers and supervisors, and business owners, to get out from behind their desks and observe behavior between workers, to listen to comments in the lunchroom or in the smoking area, to be visible in the workplace — and to be constantly on the lookout for undesired (and unlawful) behaviors on their premises.

Harassment is a form of discrimination based on a protected class that is prohibited by law. Harassment in the workplace has seen a renewed focus because the list of protected classes has expanded and technology such as social media and smart phones has created more channels for potential abuse.

Many business owners do not realize that harassment policies apply to not only employees, but also to customers, vendors and others that we interact with inside and outside of work.

Here in Massachusetts, as in many other states, protected classes include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Disability: physical or mental
  • Age (40 and older)
  • Genetic information
  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Military service
  • Arrest record
  • Gender identity

Harassment in the workplace is illegal and your business may be subject to a lawsuit if unwelcome conduct:

  • Becomes a condition of continued employment
  • Becomes so severe that the work environment is viewed as intimidating, hostile or offensive to reasonable people

According to the EEOC:

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

Read more about harassment from the EEOC

In Massachusetts, companies with 6 or more employees are required to have a written non-harassment policy and are required to disseminate it at hire and once annually.

Types of Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is the most common form of harassment.

Example: Mary Jones is demoted because she refused to go out with her supervisor, James Smith.

Other Forms of Harassment in the Workplace

Similar actions and behaviors based on the other protected classes are also harassment. Although sometimes subtle, it remains important to be on the lookout for these types of activities:

  • An email “going around” that makes fun of an employee’s sexual orientation
  • An employee who posts a racist cartoon at their cubicle
  • Derogatory comments made about a customer’s religion
  • Rude treatment of a vendor because of their gender or perceived sexual orientation

It should be noted that an employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

Best practices to stamp out Harassment in the Workplace

What can the business owner, HR or Payroll professional do to guard against harassment in your workplace?

  • Communicate policies and train your employees about harassment

(Employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their supervisors, and supervisors can be held personally liable as well)

  • Ensure that you have proper reporting mechanisms/procedures for employees to report issues

(A well-crafted policy will indicate designated contacts at the company to formally receive complaints)

  • Constantly monitor the workplace for potential problems

(While a harassment policy covers actions based on the protected classes, businesses may want to also consider an anti-bullying policy to capture any other inappropriate behavior of a harassing nature)

  • Correct harassment in the workplace quickly and with appropriate actions

All employees share the responsibility of creating and maintaining a work environment that is respectful of others – make sure they know it.