Q: Recent news reports about workplace misconduct have us taking a closer look at our strategy for preventing and addressing harassment at our company. Do you have any suggestions as we enter the new year?
A: It's critical for all employers to take a proactive approach to harassment in the workplace; it's not enough to simply have a policy. With that in mind, here is a list of suggested principles for management and employees to follow as you march forward and embrace the new year:
- Know your policy. This assumes you have a policy; if you don't, develop one now.
- Update an old policy. Seek clarification and ask questions about any aspects of your policy that you are unsure of and, if necessary, update it. Doing so with input from your employees can be enlightening and will enhance the final product.
- Communicate your policy. Take it off the shelf, dust it off, and let it shine in the light of day. Open discussion of behavioral expectations can be healthy for all.
- Encourage prompt reporting of complaints. Early intervention works; putting out small fires beats watching the building burn to the ground.
- Support your policy. Keep it in the family, fly the flag, show that management cares and that the company is the place to seek intervention and resolution. There are other resources you don't want your employees to seek out, e.g., a plaintiff's attorney or the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. Schedule harassment prevention training, emphasizing that responsibility for a respectful workplace is everyone's job, supervisors and employees alike.
- Respond promptly. Sometimes a quick bit of attention, even if not an immediate solution, means a lot to someone who's feeling hurt or disrespected.
- Treat all complaints seriously. At times, the resolution may be, "We don't find that this matter warrants investigation or corrective action, but thank you for presenting your concerns. Nonetheless, we will remind everyone to speak/act in a respectful, professional manner. We hope that you will find our ongoing work environment satisfactory." Some complaints will warrant more time and attention, but all should be addressed in a way that clearly and strongly signals that management cares, is accessible, and the company is the place to resolve such concerns.
- Be cooperative during an investigation. The goal is not to get people fired or to have employees "rat out" their coworkers. Instead, it is to gain everyone's cooperation in maintaining a safe, secure, respectful work environment.
- Do not gossip or spread rumors. Unfounded commentary pollutes the pool of information management must wade through to get to the truth. It can also irreparably harm an innocent person’s good name. Be sure to mark the path to the appropriate manager conducting an investigation, so anyone with relevant information can get there unscathed and present any relevant facts they may have.
Be extra vigilant to avoid any reaction that might be interpreted as retaliatory.
- Be persistent in eradicating harassment. Effective corrective action means eliminating the inappropriate conduct. Like noxious weeds, the bad behavior may sprout again, which means more corrective action. But persist in striving to attain a harassment-free work environment. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks, boys will be boys, it's only harmless fun," and the like are nothing but common myths and poor excuses. They are not acceptable defenses, so don't buy into them.
- Guard against retaliation. As difficult as it may be to maintain a positive demeanor toward someone who has disrupted your day with a nettlesome problem, punishing the complainer is illegal retaliation, so be extra vigilant to avoid any reaction that might be interpreted as retaliatory.
- Model the policy yourself. Everyone—especially management—must set the right tone. The vast majority of workers are interested in a positive work environment. Critical comments such as "that's not acceptable here" or "please don't do/say such things in our work setting" will likely prompt strong support.
So often, we stress physical safety, so at the end of the day everyone returns home able to enjoy good health and embrace their loved ones.
While harassment generally doesn't jeopardize physical safety, it very often threatens emotional well-being, equally important to sustaining respect and continued personal and financial security.
A happy and healthy new year to all!
HR problems? Email or call Mark Soycher at the HR Hotline (860.244.1900) | @HRHotline. Also, contact Soycher to learn more about CBIA's on-site sexual harassment prevention training programs for supervisors and employees.