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Why You Need an Anti-Harassment Policy

Workplace harassment costs businesses millions of dollars every year through poor employee morale, reduced productivity and costly lawsuits. That’s why it’s critical that you educate your employees on the various types of workplace harassment, and that you communicate and enforce your zero-tolerance policy. It’s a three-step process to creating a harassment-free workplace, as simple as knowing your ABCs.

Understand the legal definition of harassment

Create an anti-harassment policy

Train your staff

A. Understand the legal definition of harassment

Harassment includes any physical or verbal conduct demonstrating hostility toward a person because of his or her age, sex, race, color, religion, national origin, disability or other “legally protected status.” The main types of harassment are:

  • Age harassment — demeaning comments or conduct based on a person’s age. It also can involve excluding an employee from certain activities because of age, or pressuring an employee to retire.
  • Sexual harassment — characterized by unwanted sexual advances or sexually explicit words, pictures or gestures. It is also considered sexual harassment for a supervisor or manager to subject an employee to a positive or negative personnel action in exchange for accepting or refusing sexual advances. Sexual harassment at work can occur, as well, when a person is subjected to negative treatment on the basis of gender, including situations involving members of the same or opposite sex.
  • Race/color harassment — most often occurs as offensive comments, epithets, jokes, slurs or gestures, or through symbolic objects or drawings. Even when the victim and harasser are the same race, or the victim is not a minority, race harassment is unlawful.
  • Religious harassment — usually involves jokes, comments or other demeaning conduct based on a person’s affiliation with a particular religion or observance of religious holidays or dress. Coercing an employee to participate or not participate in religious activities also constitutes religious harassment.
  • National origin harassment — derogatory words or conduct aimed at an individual’s nationality, ancestry, foreign name, accent, appearance or culture.
  • Disability harassment — occurs when an individual is subject to comments, ridicule or other demeaning conduct because of a “perceived or actual disability.”

Examples of verbal harassment include but are not limited to:

  • unwelcome comments
  • jokes
  • epithets
  • threats
  • insults
  • name-calling
  • negative stereotyping
  • any other words and conduct that demean, stigmatize, intimidate, or single out a person because of his or her sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability or other legally protected status

Examples of physical or visual harassment include but are not limited to:

  • unwelcome physical contact
  • invading someone’s physical space
  • damaging personal property
  • offensive gestures
  • possession or display of derogatory pictures or other graphic materials
  • any other offensive or demeaning act directed at someone because of his or her sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability or other legally protected status

Harassment claims also can arise from e-mail and Internet activity conducted at work. (A reason why you need a policy that prohibits employees from accessing, downloading, viewing or sending inappropriate text or graphics.)

Be aware, too, of a new trend being reported by companies around the country — harassment by a workplace bully. Office bullying can take different forms, including intimidation, humiliation, aggressive behavior, sabotage and verbal abuse. In addition to addressing issues surrounding diversity and sexual harassment at work, take steps to curb bullying, too.

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B. Create a strong anti-harassment policy

The EEOC’s position is that it is “critical” for every employer to develop and distribute a written no-harassment policy.

To ensure that your policy is communicated correctly, provide every employee and manager a copy of the company’s no-harassment policy at the time of hire and at least once a year thereafter. The EEOC also recommends distributing the policy randomly at meetings and training sessions, and posting anti-harassment messages in prominent locations throughout the workplace.

It is in your best interest to obtain a written acknowledgment from each employee whenever he or she receives a copy of the policy, and to file the acknowledgment in the employee’s personnel file as proof the policy was properly distributed.

First and foremost, your policy should clearly explain the kinds of conduct that is prohibited. The policy should state that the company prohibits and will not tolerate harassment based on sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability and/or any other legally protected status. You may choose to prohibit harassment on the basis of other characteristics (e.g., sexual orientation), even if they are not protected by law.

The prohibition against a hostile work environment should cover harassment committed by anyone in the workplace, including executives, managers, coworkers and non-employees. Include definitions and examples of harassment, an overview of employee rights in the workplace and clear communication that the company has zero tolerance for all types of workplace harassment.

Your policy also should notify employees of the complaint procedure, and explain their duty to report harassment. Remember, to use the U.S. Supreme Court’s defenses for avoiding liability, your no-harassment policy should encourage complaints and remove all potential obstacles from the reporting process.

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C. Train your staff

A clear, anti-harassment policy is an important first line of defense against workplace harassment. To ensure that your anti-harassment policy is understood and upheld, plan to conduct periodic harassment training. Although harassment training is not required by law in most states, it builds awareness and can help prevent harassment and various types of discrimination. It also keeps employees and managers informed of the company’s procedures for handling harassment claims. Finally, if a harassment claim is filed, the fact that your company has offered or required training will demonstrate that you took reasonable steps to prevent harassment.

It’s also important that you monitor your workplace. Spend time with your employees, talking to them about their work environment and getting their input. Take a good look at your surroundings. Do you see offensive posters, notes or any other red flags? Keep the lines of communication open and talk to your supervisors and managers about what is going on day to day.

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