Employee harassment: 3 things you need to know

Employee harassment in the workplace can take many forms. Because of the variety of harassing conduct that can occur, it can sometimes be difficult to spot it among your employees.  It’s important that you and your team know how to identify harassment at work. It’s also important that your team knows how to respond if they fall victim to harassment. 

Types of employee harassment

First, let’s get one thing straight: No matter the nature of your business, your employees deserve to be respected and not exposed to sexual harassment, physical harassment, or verbal harassment of any kind while on the job. And federal law prohibits it.  

So what exactly constitutes harassment? Essentially harassment includes anything you or your employees do to make a coworker feel uncomfortable, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines it as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”

Furthermore, according to the EEOC, harassment becomes unlawful when:

  • Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment; or
  • The conduct is severe enough to create a working environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or offensive. 

In other words, it’s not just rude, but actually illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make inappropriate comments or exhibit unsuitable behavior to others based on their:

  • Gender identity
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Skin color
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Age

What should an employee do if they witness harassment? 

When training your employees on harassment prevention, set a clear plan on how to react and make sure every team member is made aware of that plan. Let’s start with if an employee witnesses another employee conducting an act of harassment. 

If one of your employees witnesses either an isolated incident or an ongoing instance of verbal or physical harassment, they should first document it. Make sure they know to write everything down, including the date, time, and details of what was said or done. They should also include who else may have witnessed the harassment. 

Next, they should reach out to the victim and inform them that they witnessed the incident and would like to report it. Then, tell them to talk to a manager or point of contact that handles human resources issues (if you have one). The key is to share what they saw or heard with someone who has the power to do something about it. 

What should an employee do if they are a victim of harassment? 

Being on the receiving end of harassment can be upsetting, humiliating, and downright soul-sucking. The first thing an employee should do if they experience is to document the incident. Tell them to write down what happened, when and how it happened, and who was around to witness it. 

The next step involves seeking backup from those who witnessed the harassment. Employees should tell the witnesses that they intend to speak with a manager, and ask them to both document their accounts of what happened and pledge their support.

Finally, they should report the incident officially. The employee should file a claim with a manager. It’s usually best to discuss the issue face to face—especially if the employee has a good relationship with the manager—but they should also follow up that in-person meeting with an email or something in writing. This way, there’s proof that the issue was discussed and brought to management’s attention.

What else to include in your training

As previously mentioned, you should set up a clear policy on preventing employee harassment and how to respond if it occurs in the workplace, and then train your entire team on it. 

Your training should include: 

  • Examples of employee harassment
  • Acknowledgment of a zero-tolerance policy
  • How to respond if employee harassment occurs
  • The steps to reporting an incident with multiple options
  • What management will do in response to the report
  • How the incident will be investigated
  • Any disciplinary measures that will be taken 

Third-party resources

Let’s say the employee is not comfortable bringing up the harassment to management—or, worse yet, your boss is the one doing the harassment. The good news is that action can still be taken. 

Employees can file a complaint with the EEOC, either in person or by mail. Furthermore, they can consult with an attorney, or other third-party, who handles workplace harassment and discrimination issues. 

If you as the manager or business owner need some extra help setting up an employee harassment prevention policy, Homebase is here to help. We’ll connect you with HR experts who will review your existing policies. You’ll also have access to our robust HR library, on-demand trainings, and help with creating new guidelines for your business. 

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