Workplace harassment is never OK.  Your employees should feel safe and respected while on the job and shouldn’t have to experience harassment of any kind from their peers. That’s not just our opinion—it’s the law. It’s up to you and your managers to create a work environment that makes your staff feel comfortable at all times by building an anti-harassment policy in your employee handbook

Not only does a policy against offensive conduct and harassment at work keep your team safe, but it also prevents you from undergoing an expensive lawsuit if an employee files a complaint.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the average harassment-based lawsuit settlement costs business owners $100,000. If it’s taken to court, business owners can expect to pay anywhere from $175,000 to $250,000. 

The best way to prevent harassing conduct in your workplace is to build a thorough anti-harassment policy and train your employees to follow it. This can be done easily in a few simple steps.  

1. Understand the definition of harassment 

The EEOC defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).”

The organization considers harassment illegal when: 

  1. An employee must endure offensive conduct as a condition of their job. 
  2. The conduct affects an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive environment. 

Additionally, anti-discrimination laws forbid any form of retaliation against employees who file a discrimination complaint or participating in an investigation. It’s also illegal to retaliate against individuals who refuse to participate in work practices they believe to be discriminatory. 

Note: Many states include additional protected classes, like marital status. There are also specific laws around sexual harassment in certain states that require employers to train team members on sexual harassment prevention. Take a look at our sexual harassment prevention checklist to learn more. 

You can also view your state labor law guide to ensure you’re covering all the classes your state protects. 

2. Define harassment 

Your workplace harassment prevention policy should first define harassment. Include the definition provided above, and then expand on it by laying out the three types (which can be used for all different types of harassment): 

  • Written or verbal harassment
  • Physical harassment
  • Visual harassment

Include examples of each to better inform your team on what they mean, and tailor them to fit your industry so your team can relate them to their actual work environment. Example scenarios could include: 

  • Written or verbal: Sending offensive emails with jokes about race or religion, asking about family illness history, making insensitive comments about someone’s age, mocking someone’s foreign accent
  • Physical: Offensive hand gestures, playing offensive music 
  • Visual: Displaying offensive posters, drawing violent or derogatory images, showing other people offensive texts or emails 

State clearly in your policy that your business holds a zero-tolerance stance on all forms of harassment. Then, lay out what the consequences are for both isolated incidents and continued misconduct. You should also inform employees that retaliation against a team member for making a claim is prohibited. 

Explain your procedure for internal complaints and encourage employees to report all issues immediately. Let them know that all complaints will be thoroughly investigated and kept confidential as much as possible. However, don’t promise total confidentiality—you may need to inform others about the complaint during the investigation process. 

3. Set up your reporting process 

An HR team typically handles harassment complaints, but small businesses don’t often employ human resource specialists. If you don’t have an HR team, select at least two employees to be the designated team members your staff should report harassment issues. These people should be unbiased and trusted by their coworkers.

Include how the employee should report the complaint—encourage your team members to send a written complaint to the designated complaint receiver, but assure them that it will be dealt with just as thoroughly if they submit it in person. 

4. Lay out investigation timeline 

Employees should know how to quickly report a harassment incident to conduct an investigation as soon as possible. The EEOC recommends dealing with a harassment complaint within 48 hours of the incident. 

The individual who receives the complaint should get every detail the affected employee can provide and assure them they will thoroughly investigate it. These details should include at minimum the dates and locations of the incident, involved employees, and any witnesses. 

The investigating employee should then conduct interviews with the involved team members and record their findings in a written report. 

5. Prevent retaliation 

Almost 50% of harassment cases handled by the EEOC are related to retaliation, so your team needs to be made fully aware of what exactly it means. 

Retaliation typically comes in the form of any adverse action against a team member who has filed an internal complaint or a complaint with the EEOC or acted as a witness in an ongoing investigation. 

Examples of a retaliation response may include: 

  • Firing, demoting, or transferring the employee
  • Withholding a promotion or raise 
  • Excluding the employee from business-related activities
  • Creating a hostile work environment 

Once you set up your policy, have your employees sign it to acknowledge that they understand it. It’s also important to hold a training session on the contents to ensure they have a grasp on how not to act and how to handle any harassment issues that occur. 

If you need more help setting up your policy, Homebase HR Pro provides affordable access to certified advisors who can help you set up your new policy and answer any questions you may have on this topic and more.