Did you know a single harassment lawsuit can cost more than $100,000 to defend? That doesn’t include the potential price tag of a judgment in favor of the harassed employee, which can be many times that amount. Given these staggering numbers, there’s no question that a single harassment claim could shut down most small businesses.
What can you do to protect yourself? You’re a business owner … not a human resources expert. And your business may not be big enough to add an HR professional to your staff. Fortunately, there are clear, affordable steps you can take to help you maintain a harassment-free workplace and protect your company against lawsuits.
Workplace Harassment Prevention is Key
“The best approach to harassment is to prevent it before it starts,” says Ashley H. Kaplan, Esq., ComplyRight’s Senior Employment Law Attorney. “Simple steps can go a long way toward protecting your business.”
To create a respectful, harassment-free workplace, you should:
- Develop a no-harassment policy. Your company’s workplace harassment policy should:
- Define harassment and specific types of prohibited conduct,
- Encourage employees to report harassment immediately
- Explain the internal complaint procedure
- Indicate that complaints will be treated confidentially as much as possible under the circumstances (never guarantee complete confidentiality)
- Prohibit retaliation for reporting harassment or participating in any subsequent investigation or lawsuit
- Emphasize that all complaints will be taken seriously and investigated in a prompt, thorough, impartial manner
- Confirm that appropriate corrective action will be taken,
- Designate at least two contacts within your company to receive harassment complaints.
- Sometimes, a harassed employee chooses not to complain because the person doing the harassing is also the obvious choice for filing a complaint (like a direct supervisor or general manager, for example). To avoid this situation, designate and train at least two individuals (preferably one male and one female), to hear and document employee harassment concerns. Be sure to include their names and contact information as part of your complaint procedure in your non-harassment policy.
- Distribute and communicate the company harassment policy.
- Send out a policy document for employees to read, sign and date — and keep a copy in their personnel files. In addition, it’s a best practice to reinforce your company’s policy with a notice displayed in an area where all employees gather, such as a break room.
- Train your employees and supervisors.
- Anti-harassment policies are only as effective as the employees and managers who follow them. Surprisingly, many employees don’t know what is considered harassing behavior, nor do managers know how to recognize and respond to it. This is where regular training comes in. With a few exceptions under state law, you don’t have to conduct the training yourself or hire a professional. Instead, look into complete training solutions to do the bulk of the work for you.
“Some states, such as California, require employers to conduct harassment training,” Kaplan says. “Whether mandated or not, training is crucial for building awareness and to preserve certain legal defenses. It can also bring issues to light for internal resolution that might otherwise escalate to legal action.”
What if you receive a complaint?
Employees should feel comfortable sharing their workplace concerns, including harassment on the job. Here are some tips on what to do if you receive a complaint:
- Listen to the details of the complaint and let the employee know you take his or her concerns seriously
- Prepare a written report outlining the details of the complaint.
- Choose an appropriate investigator who will conduct interviews, review documentation and record findings.
- Act quickly; the EEOC urges employers to respond within 48 hours of receiving a complaint.
“Consider hiring an attorney or consultant if you don’t have a qualified internal investigator,” Kaplan says. “An outsider can offer valuable perspective and could even lend credibility to your defense if a legal dispute arises.”