by | General Liability, Small Business |

Preventing Workplace Harassment

Recent news covering high-profile cases of sexual misconduct in the workplace has small business owners thinking about their own employment practices. There’s a wider consciousness now that workplace harassment, which includes sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment based on age, race and other protected classes of employees, can happen anywhere and impact anyone.  More importantly, it means everyone within the organization needs to play a role in preventing a hostile work environment.

The Scope of the Challenge

Before we look at some best practices, consider these examples of behaviors that fall under the general definition of workplace harassment:

  • Using racist nicknames
  • Trying to convert employees to a different religion
  • Disparaging an employee’s ethnic background
  • Teasing an employee about a disability
  • Making ageist remarks
  • Making intimidating physical threats (e.g., pushing, shoving, invading another individual’s personal space)
  • Inflicting emotional intimidation
  • Using instant messaging or social media to elicit fear
  • Making unwelcome sexual advances, whether verbal, visual, or physical
  • Suggesting quid pro quo (“something for something”) sexual harassment

Unfortunately, many of these offenses occur under the radar. Offenders may not believe they’re doing anything unethical. Victims may not step forward and bystanders may remain silent, fearing retaliation. While unreported incidents don’t make it into the statistics, it’s clear that workplace harassment is a very real threat to businesses and their employees.

The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 19% of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work, 19% have witnessed it, and 63% are aware that it happens. What’s more, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), workplace harassment is alleged in nearly 30% of all charges filed with the organization. Research from The National Women’s Law Center adds that nearly a quarter of those EEOC harassment charges involved sexual harassment.

Best Practices to Help Prevent Workplace Harassment

1) Protect Your Business with a Policy

If your company becomes party to a lawsuit involving any type of workplace harassment, your costs could be enormous. Aside from financial costs, there’s the damage to your company’s reputation as well as employee morale and productivity. Your organizational effectiveness is at stake—and that’s why it’s important that you do what you can to protect your employees and minimize your risks.

If your company doesn’t have a formal workplace harassment program, visit the Society for Human Resource Management for guidance on creating policies and procedures. Also, some state laws have specific requirements for such policies, so be sure to check any applicable local requirements, too.  A program is essential for ensuring you’re doing your due diligence as an employer and looking out for your employees’ safety and wellbeing. It’s also the basis for employee communication and training, and can include the protocol for managing incidents that are reported. Managers need to enforce the policies and ensure there is broad compliance, and employees need to know that policies will be applied consistently.

2) Keep Training and Retraining

It’s one thing to ask your workforce to watch a presentation or slideshow, read some handouts, and sign some paperwork. It’s another to get them engaged in the process of learning—truly connecting them to the issues and striking an emotional chord. Employees need to know that it’s more than getting sensitive to the issues: it’s about adhering to ethical standards, treating people with respect, and upholding the standards of your organization.

Periodic training on harassment may be required for employers in some jurisdictions, but whether required or not, training and retraining helps reinforce your commitment to your employees’ safety and well-being.  Continuing education that’s delivered over time on an ongoing and recurring basis should include explaining responsibilities and expectations, training on situational awareness and creating an understanding of the different types of harassment.

3) Strengthen Your Workplace Culture

The Society for Human Resource Management says that “without the endorsement of senior leaders, the training likely will be seen as a mere ‘check-the-box’ exercise.” Indeed, employees at all levels of your company need to buy-in to the need for a safe working environment—one that doesn’t tolerate any form of harassment.

In fact, an article in The New York Times that explored the effectiveness of traditional sexual harassment training concluded that “to actually prevent harassment, companies need to create a culture in which women are treated as equals and employees treat one another with respect.” This holds true with any kind of harassment involving all classifications of people—gender, ethnicity, age, religious affiliation, etc.

4) Make Sure You’re Covered

Now is the perfect time to review your workplace harassment program. Consult with your insurance agent to find out if you have the right business coverage in place to protect you from liability—just in case you have a harassment claim. To find an insurance agent near you, visit our agent locator.

Acadia Insurance is pleased to share this material with its customers. Please note, however, that nothing in this document should be construed as legal advice or the provision of professional consulting services. This material is for general informational purposes only, and while reasonable care has been utilized in compiling this information, no warranty or representation is made as to accuracy or completeness.

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