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Six steps to avoiding a harassment claim

December 15, 2017

By Jill Hannigan, Vice President of Human Resources, Access Point
Sexual harassment in the news has many employers questioning if their workplace is free from harassment, but they may be overlooking other issues. Employers shouldn’t limit their attention to just sexual harassment. There are other types of harassment that are equally unlawful and need to be avoided.

Harassment based on any protected status such as race, ethnicity and religion are equally prohibited. Employers need to take steps to prevent and deal with all types of harassment because as an employer, they could be held liable for themselves as well as managers, employees and those that do business for the company. The following are effective ways to minimize exposure of a harassment claim and if you have additional questions, speak with one of our HR Professionals.

1. Distribute an anti-harassment policy
A vital step in the process is to create an anti-harassment policy within your employee handbook to make it clear that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. The policy should be clear, concise and easily understood by your employees. If you don’t have a policy, it’s critical you develop one as soon as possible. This will save you a lot of headache when a complaint is made.

In order for the policy to be compliant and effective, it needs to contain definitions along with descriptions of harassment. This would identify what could be considered a hostile work environment and/or sexual harassment. Also, the policy should contain a complaint procedure and resolution process along with addressing non-retaliation towards those identified in the complaint.

2. Educate employees
Once your policy is in place, it is time to put it into practice. A good employer will have trainings for their employees at a minimum once per year. All employees should be required to attend these trainings, sign in and be encouraged to participate in order to achieve a better understanding.

3. Address complaints immediately
Do not delay, as soon as a complaint is reported start to investigate. Consult with your HR professional who is well-versed in handling harassment claims.

An initial complaint can be reported verbally or in writing. Regardless of the reporting method, it should be acted upon immediately. If reported verbally, first step in handling the complaint would be to request an official statement in writing.

4. Conduct formal investigations
In conjunction with your HR professional, conduct interviews and review the evidence presented within the complaint. Typically, this process will begin with the employee that brought the complaint forward. Followed by an interview with the accused. Lastly, interview possible witnesses to the potential harassment claim. Remember to keep these interviews confidential and provide an environment where the employees feel safe.

5. Follow through

After completing the investigation, take immediate steps toward the appropriate disciplinary actions, if needed. The actions taken will depend on the severity of the offense committed and can range from training or counseling to suppression or termination.

6. Watch for retaliation

Employers must ensure that the complaining employee is not retaliated against after the investigation has been completed. This can be especially relevant in situations where the accused was not found guilty of harassment.

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