In any case of workplace harassment, an employer’s behavior must meet a certain standard in the eyes of the law. Just posting an anti-harassment policy, while a positive step, is insufficient to prove that an employer took workplace harassment seriously.
Workplace harassment isn’t limited to sexual harassment and doesn’t preclude harassment between two people of the same gender. The harasser can be a boss, a supervisor in another department, a co-worker, or even a non employee. The victim doesn’t necessarily have to be the person being harassed; it can be anyone affected by the harassing behavior.
Harassment can also be considered a form of employment discrimination under various federal, state and local laws. In order to be considered discrimination, the harassment must be based on some protected trait. Under federal law, those traits include race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, age, religion, disability, and genetic information. Many state and local governments have enacted similar anti-discrimination laws.
Retaliation claims are costly and time-consuming for employers. Missteps in handling sensitive employee issues could result in the organization writing a check with a lot of zeros.
Additionally, workplace harassment may constitute a hostile work environment. Some conduct can be so severe on its own that even one incident can create a legal claim of workplace harassment.
How companies investigate potential misconduct can affect the company’s reputation as well as its bottom line. Because cultural and generational diversity is changing the landscape of the U.S. workforce, that diversity can become fuel for all types of litigation. Understanding how to recognize harassment and effectively conduct workplace investigations can greatly reduce the chances of an organization being sued.
An employer can avoid or reduce liability by taking appropriate preventative measures. Participants will learn the best practices employers can employ to minimize the likelihood of retaliation violations.
Employers first need to understand exactly what harassment is: unwelcome conduct from a boss, coworker, group of coworkers, vendor, or customer whose actions, communication, or behavior mocks, demeans, puts down, disparages, or ridicules an employee. Physical assaults, threats, and intimidation are severe forms of harassment and bullying. Harassment may also include offensive jokes, name-calling, offensive nicknames, pornographic images on a laptop, and offensive pictures or objects. Interfering with an employee’s ability to do his or her work also is considered a form of harassment.
Employees can also experience harassment when they are not the target of the harasser because of the negative work environment that can develop because of the harassment. This is referred to as a hostile work environment. Additionally, workplace harassment can result in claims of discrimination and retaliation.
Employers often overlook the importance of promptly investigating complaints of harassment and taking quick and appropriate corrective action. Since an employer’s prompt and effective response to complaints can limit or eliminate its liability in a discrimination, harassment, or retaliation lawsuit, it is imperative that employers implement an effective mechanism to investigate and resolve workplace complaints.
Charges of harassment in the workplace can result in costly consequences for companies. In 2017, the EEOC handled 84,254 charges and secured more than $125 million for victims of harassment and discrimination in private, federal, state, and local government workplaces.