Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Mar 29, 2018

Q&A: Is your company at risk for workplace harassment?

Q&AHarassment & Discrimination 

Question: We have an anti-harassment policy and complaint process in our employee handbook. We also conduct annual training for employees. What else should we be doing to prevent workplace harassment?

Answer: First, take a look at your company culture. Are your leaders supporting the effort to create a harassment-free environment and modeling appropriate behavior? Are you holding all employees from the top down accountable?

Workplace Harassment Risk Factors

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has identified 12 risk factors for harassment in the workplace. Some of the risk factors include:

  • a historically homogeneous environment;
  • cultural and language differences;
  • a young workforce;
  • significant power disparities;
  • “superstar” or “high value” employees;
  • isolated work locations;
  • low-intensity and/or monotonous work; and
  • decentralized management.

Why Young Workforces Are At Risk for Workplace Harassment

The “youth” risk factor may seem surprising, until you realize that a workforce comprised of teenagers or employees in their first or second jobs may be less aware of workplace norms. Or a young employee eager to advance may be less likely to challenge inappropriate conduct or report it, especially when a manager or established senior employee is involved.

The Power and Harassment Connection
The reluctance to report also arises in workplaces with significant power disparities among the workforce or within certain groups. Employee onboarding and orientation should include a clear message that the company wants to hear (and address) all employee complaints of unwelcome conduct. As we have seen in the news, the eventual cost of protecting your superstar or high value employees from adhering to the company’s anti-harassment policy can be enormous – and embarrassing. These employees may be perceived to be exempt from company policies because of their economic value to the company. Their coworkers and subordinates may not come forward with a complaint against the superstar or anyone else, because they don’t trust the system. Likewise, potential whistleblowers may fear retaliation from those in power.

Addressing Workplace Culture in Stages 
Admittedly, tackling your culture is more intimidating than creating policies and training, but it can be done in stages. First, look at your leadership and accountability with respect to anti-harassment. Next, pay closer attention to relations among and within work groups in order to identify and address specific culture issues that can breed harassment. Finally, have your culture drive your training and policies.

HR Training

For help ensuring that your training hits all the right messages, check out our catalog of HR training classes and contact your Vigilant employment attorney. Also see our Legal Guide, “At a Glance: Workplace Harassment” and the report from the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. Not a Vigilant member? Get unlimited, flat fee employment law counsel today.

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