It is universally accepted by now (or it should be) that there is no place for harassment inside or outside the workplace. This is no different than the obligation to ensure a safe workplace for employees as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The problem is in defining the point where behavior amounts to harassment, how to deal with the situation when it does and how to eliminate this behavior from your workplace.
Harassment, as defined by the EEOC, the agency that enforces worker protections from discrimination in the workplace, is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA). Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, or any other legally protected group. See https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm.
To prevent this behavior and promote a work environment that is never hostile, intimidating, or offensive for employees, visitors, customers, etc., you need to take the following actions:
- take the position that there will be zero tolerance for harassment in your workplace
- prepare and communicate a non-harassment policy, to be included in your employee handbook and posted on bulletin boards or on the company intranet
- have regular meetings with managers and employees to cover the policy and their responsibilities for compliance
- train managers on identifying harassment and how to deal with it
A solid and effective harassment policy includes the following provisions:
- examples of unlawful harassment
- employer obligation to conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation of possible harassment even if the target of the harassment does not wish to proceed with their claim
- confidentiality of the investigation to the extent possible
- employee obligation to report the conduct, whether it is directed at them or others
- a specific procedure for reporting harassment, including who to contact and multiple, accessible reporting avenues (not just their direct supervisor, who may be the source of the harassment)
- assurances of non-retaliation by the employer or anyone else for reporting claims or participating in the investigation
- consequences for harassment (i.e. disciplinary action, termination, job reassignment)
- where to go with questions regarding the policy
- resolution of the complaint which does not adversely impact the accuser (e.g. if it is necessary to move either the harasser or the harassed employee to a different department to prevent further issues, you should strongly consider moving the harasser out of that department).
Bottom line, it makes good business sense to ensure that your workplace is a place that your employees feel safe and comfortable in. If it isn’t, you will have higher turnover, legal consequences, and lower productivity, not to mention the inability to attract talent to your team.