Harassment Can Cost You Personally in Business and at Work

Last Friday, my colleague Mary Martinez invited me to view her session on Human Resources Fundamentals, which is part of the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Institute. Mary is the Leadership Institute Program Chair, and she invited me to her session after viewing the opening session that I teach for the Leadership Institute on Leadership and Strategic Thinking.

As a fellow HR geek, I thoroughly enjoyed her 4-hour workshop. During the compliance section of the workshop, Mary asked the class if they knew what illegal conduct could cost them personally. Mary didn’t wait long for an answer: sexual harassment.

Case in point:  the recent sexual harassment lawsuit settlement against the New York state Assembly and former Assemblyman Vito Lopez.  The state paid $545,000 in the settlement (in other words, from tax revenues paid by me and my fellow New Yorkers); Lopez personally paid $35,000.

The Lopez case is a cautionary tale of individual liability for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If an employee or manager does not have the common sense or values orientation to avoid committing acts of harassment (sexual or other protected-class categories under the Act), a $35,000 hit to their personal bottom-line might act as a stronger incentive.

How do employers, including but not limited to small businesses, protect themselves from liability (legal, financial, etc.) under Title VII?  The EEOC has a basic Q&A document for small business, found here, with advice including but not limited to:

What should employers do to prevent and correct harassment?

  • Employers should establish, distribute to all employees, and enforce a policy prohibiting harassment and setting out a procedure for making complaints. In most cases, the policy and procedure should be in writing.
  • Small businesses may be able to discharge their responsibility to prevent and correct harassment through less formal means. For example, if a business is sufficiently small that the owner maintains regular contact with all employees, the owner can tell the employees at staff meetings that harassment is prohibited, that employees should report such conduct promptly, and that a complaint can be brought “straight to the top.” If the business conducts a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation of any complaint that arises and undertakes swift and appropriate corrective action, it will have fulfilled its responsibility to “effectively prevent and correct harassment.”

What should an anti-harassment policy say?

  • An employer’s anti-harassment policy should make clear that the employer will not tolerate harassment based on race, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information (and in New York state, sexual orientation – emphasis mine), or harassment based on opposition to discrimination or participation in complaint proceedings. The policy should also state that the employer will not tolerate retaliation against anyone who complains of harassment or who participates in an investigation.

What are important elements of a complaint procedure?

  • The employer should encourage employees to report harassment to management before it becomes severe or pervasive.
  • The employer should designate more than one individual to take complaints, and should ensure that these individuals are in accessible locations. The employer also should instruct all of its supervisors to report complaints of harassment to appropriate officials.
  • The employer should assure employees that it will protect the confidentiality of harassment complaints to the extent possible.

What actions will you take to prevent legal and financial liability for you and your organization by preventing harassment this week and beyond, in business and at work?

Debt settlement

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