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Steven I. Azizi

Management

How to Deal With Workplace Harassment Effectively

Take these steps to protect your employees and your company

Published: Tuesday, May 10, 2022 - 12:03

It has been more than five decades since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to outlaw harassment and discrimination against workers in American workplaces. Unfortunately, workplace harassment is still a serious problem for millions of workers in the country.

Different forms of harassment, whether they’re based on gender, sexual orientation, age, race, color, ethnicity, physical disability, or religious beliefs, result in a hostile work environment where workers are subject to unrelenting insults, intimidation, rude treatment, or unfair criticism.

As an employer or someone responsible for managing employees in your workplace, you can take steps to prevent workplace harassment. When an employee complains that they are experiencing harassment at work, you—the employer—have a moral, ethical, and legal obligation to investigate all such charges thoroughly without any delay.

Not many business owners realize that addressing workplace harassment can improve their bottom line. When workers feel protected and supported in the workplace, they are likely to be more productive team players and committed to achieving shared goals.

Here, we’ll shed light on some of the best ways to deal with and effectively stop workplace harassment. 

Understand what harassment is

Workplace harassment refers to verbal or physical conduct that aims to denigrate a worker or demonstrate hostility toward them because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, color, age, ethnicity, national origin, or disability.

Such conduct aims at:
Creating a hostile work environment for the victim—For example, Steve, a supervisor, often teases David, an older worker, about his age. Besides facing unfair criticism almost daily, David is left out of meetings that he earlier took part in. David believes Steve is pushing him into early retirement by constantly harassing him at work.
Threatening or creating a fear of retaliation—Jake has on multiple occasions shoved Robert, his co-worker at the worksite. Jake has also exhibited threatening behavior (shaking fists angrily) to bully Robert due to his aversion to Robert’s religious beliefs.
Forcing an employee to comply with an unlawful instruction or face retaliation—Steve asked his subordinate, Lucy, to dinner. She politely refused, but Steve later passed her up for promotion despite the fact that she was among the top performers in her team. Now, Steve routinely makes insulting remarks about her appearance in front of her colleagues.

From direct and indirect threats and intimidation to caustic slurs, negative stereotyping, and hostile acts, workplace harassment can take on different forms. Employers, HR managers, and senior supervisors should be aware of what constitutes workplace harassment. Jokes or pranks that are hostile or demeaning with regard to a worker’s protected characteristics shouldn’t be taken lightly. When such conduct is brought to your notice, it is your responsibility to thoroughly investigate the problem and take all steps necessary to stop the harassment.

Draft and communicate a ‘zero tolerance’ workplace harassment policy to employees

First things first, you can consult an attorney specializing in workplace harassment laws to draft and implement a policy aimed at preventing workplace harassment. Make it a point to inform all employees that harassment is strictly prohibited. All workers should understand what is and what isn’t acceptable conduct or behavior in the workplace. They should also be made aware of the possible consequences that will follow if a harassment charge is established.

For example, Sophia, a graphic designer, informs her employer, Benjamin, via email that her colleague Lucas has been sharing offensive pictures with her. Upon Sophia protesting against such behavior, Lucas started speculating about her private life in front of other co-workers. Upon investigation, Benjamin found the charges to be true. The digital trail and witness testimonies established beyond doubt that Lucas had sexually harassed Sophia at work. Lucas faced summary dismissal. This served as a warning to all workers that workplace harassment of any kind wasn’t acceptable. This way, Benjamin had effectively communicated “zero tolerance” against sexual harassment at work to everyone in the company.

Be accessible and address harassment complaints promptly

Employers, senior managers, and executives should encourage workers to report any behavior they believe to constitute workplace harassment. While the line manager can be the first point of contact for frontline workers raising complaints, alternative avenues should also be available. Medium- and large-scale organizations, for instance, may have a variable hierarchy for complaints raised by different sets of employees.

For example:
• Frontline workers can report workplace harassment to their line manager or supervisor
• Middle-level staff can submit their complaints to a designated senior executive
• Executive staff can raise harassment complaints with a designated company board member

Any inappropriate behavior that amounts to harassment should be dealt with immediately. How a complaint should be dealt with will depend on the nature of harassment and evidence in favor or against it. Consider the following scenarios.

Scenario 1

Harry is plant manager at a manufacturing plant. Leo is an immigrant who works as a forklift operator. Leo informs Harry in writing that Jacob, his co-worker, has been teasing him about his country of origin.

Harry immediately speaks with Jacob and asks him to submit an apology in writing. Jacob never resorted to his old ways again.

Leo was satisfied with Harry’s prompt response and decided not to take up the matter with someone higher up in the chain. He is more likely to stick around. This could help the company keep its turnover cost under control.

Harry successfully dealt with workplace harassment.

Scenario 2

Charlotte, a junior programmer at a digital marketing agency, informs Emma, her manager, that Oliver, her colleague, has been making inappropriate physical contact during evening shifts.

Emma ignored the complaint. Charlotte wrote an email to the HR manager, but nothing happened. Oliver continued harassing Charlotte.

Finally, Charlotte decided to appeal to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

The company fired Charlotte in retaliation. The EEOC investigated the case and issued a notice to the company. Now, Charlotte is working with her attorney to sue the company because the management failed to properly address her sexual harassment complaint. She is suing the company for various damages and has a rock-solid case.

Emma could have addressed the complaint, but she failed to do that. Now, the company is potentially liable for damages.

Final Words

Workplace harassment should never be acceptable. If you notice that someone is being harassed at work, be sure to take appropriate steps at an early stage. If left unchecked, harassment soon becomes severe or pervasive. You can first tell the harasser that their behavior is unwelcome, and they need to back off. If the harassment doesn’t stop, the employer or the HR manager should take necessary action as per the company’s policy on harassment.

Discuss

About The Author

Steven I. Azizi’s picture

Steven I. Azizi

Steven is the senior partner and co-founder of Miracle Mile Law Group. Steven always knew his calling involved helping ordinary people, not corporations, so he started Miracle Mile Law Group, where he exclusively represents employees in claims against their employers.