HR Support on Preventing and Responding to Harassment at Work

Editor's Note: Identify and eliminate harassing behavior based on protected class status.

Beth P. ZollerOverview: In addition to sexual harassment in the workplace, federal law as well as most state law prohibits harassment against an individual based on his or her membership in a protected class. Therefore, individuals are protected from harassment based on race, national origin, religion, etc. Harassment may take the form of using insulting epithets, slurs or negative stereotypes; making rude and offensive jokes; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts; or written and graphic material such as cartoons that insult a particular individual or group based on that individual's or group's protected class.

To eliminate workplace harassment, employers should have a policy in place that strictly prohibits harassing behavior of any kind. All employees and supervisors should be provided with training on the policy. Further, employers should designate a multichannel reporting system to allow employees to bring workplace harassment complaints to the employer's attention. Further, employers should immediately respond to any complaints of harassment by investigating the matter and taking corrective action.

Trends: The EEOC has identified preventing harassment through systemic enforcement as well as targeted outreach and education efforts as one of its priorities in the most recent Strategic Enforcement plan. As such, there are significant number of harassment lawsuits being brought by the EEOC as well as individuals based on race, age, religion etc. As the workplace becomes more diverse, this has led to an increase in harassment suits of all kinds.

In 2017, the EEOC proposed updating its enforcement guidance with respect to preventing and addressing harassment. The proposed guidance uses a broad definition of harassment and encourages management to lead by example and set the tone for a workplace where there is zero tolerance for harassment. Additionally, it advises employers to develop, implement and enforce harassment policies, institute multi-channel complaint procedures, and provide comprehensive and interactive antiharassment training.

From government to entertainment to Fortune 500 companies to the media to the halls of Congress, it seems that sexual harassment has become an even greater risk for employers as the issue has boiled up and come to the forefront in recent months particularly with the #metoo and #timesup movements. Therefore, it is critical for an employer to understand that it must work to eradicate sexual harassment and all forms of harassment based on any protected class from the workplace because the employer has so much at stake. It is important to hold all individuals in the organization to the same standards of conduct and make sure that no one — not a manager, supervisor or owner — should be provided with special treatment. It is no longer possible to maintain a culture of silence and complicity and there must be a cultural shift in recognizing that there is no place for harassment at work.

Author: Beth P. Zoller, JD, Legal Editor

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HR guidance on preventing and responding to workplace harassment, including instituting a policy, providing training to employees and supervisors, and immediately investigating harassment complaints.