Sexual Harassment Isn’t the Only Type of Workplace Harassment

The #MeToo movement shed much-needed attention on the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace.   From the entertainment industry to media organizations to politics, both men and women bravely stepped into the spotlight to share their stories.

While the conversation about workplace harassment has shone a light on the basic human right to work in an environment that is free of sexual harassment, another conversation has yet to begin – other forms of harassment.  Age, disability, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and even veteran status are the basis of other kinds of workplace harassment.

Employers are responsible for workplace harassment and can be held legally liable.  Therefore, it is in a company’s best interest to take the necessary steps to reduce the likelihood of its occurrence.  Below are six steps to mitigating workplace harassment.

#1 – Understand exactly what it is.  Harassment is “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”  This definition is provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); however, many states, counties, and municipalities go well beyond the EEOC’s definition.  For example, in Washington, DC, it is unlawful to harass someone based on political affiliation or sexual orientation.  Likewise, in the city of Frederick, Maryland, it is unlawful to harass someone based on marital status.   The bottom is that you need to be aware of laws that are applicable to your locale.

#2 – Recognize it when it occurs.  Harassment is offensive, and can be carried out in person, online, or via telephone.  It can be in the form of inappropriate epithets (terms of abuse), jokes, intimidation, insults, physical or verbal assaults (bullying), pictures (including memes), objects, and threats.  Interference with an employee’s workplace performance is another way in which harassment can occur.

#3 – Have a written policy that states your company’s expectations.  Even if you think that all of your employees know that harassment will not be tolerated, that message still needs to be formally communicated to everyone throughout your organization.  The best way to ensure that the message is stated in exactly the same manner to everyone is to put it in writing.  Your policy should also state what to expect if a harassment claim is investigated and substantiated.

#4 – Have a mechanism for employees to report harassment concerns.  Make sure that employees know how and to whom harassment claims should be reported.  There should be a specific person, department, and/or mechanism for reporting incidents, and this information should be included in your anti-harassment policy.

#5 – Investigate reports immediately and impartially.  Never delay the investigation of a harassment claim.  Doing so could cause continued distress for the alleged victim and could embolden the alleged offender, thus, creating an even more hostile workplace environment.  Also, investigate every claim without prejudice, relying on facts and evidence presented, not feelings or suspicions.

#6 – Include harassment awareness and prevention training and conversations as hallmarks of your company’s culture.  Workplace training isn’t just for job duties.  It’s also an important tool for forming and maintaining your company’s culture.  Make sure that training and conversations about harassment are frequent, interactive, and use real-life examples.  Doing so will help employees to better understand and retain the information that they receive.