Harassment in the workplace can come in many forms: sexual, racial, religious, physical, or psychological. Often, the terms bullying, abuse, and manipulation will be tied to harassment. According to a 2016 report from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (the US equivalent of Canadian human rights commissions):
- At least 1 in 4 people are affected by workplace harassment; and
- 75% of harassment victims experience retaliation.
Workplace harassment also costs companies millions. For example, from 2010 to 2016, US companies paid out $681.7 million as a result of EEOC harassment proceedings. Proportionally, the costs are similar in Canada where workplace harassment results in complaints and litigation under provincial human rights laws. And keep in mind that these figures account only for harassment based on race, sex, religion, disability and other characteristics protected by discrimination laws. These costs would likely double or triple if you add in workplace harassment claims of workers not protected by human rights laws, e.g., white males.
Bottom Line: Combatting workplace harassment isn’t just a legal but also a business imperative.
Preventing Workplace Harassment
All companies ban workplace harassment. Or at least they should. But prohibiting workplace harassment is just the beginning of the effort to root it out. Workplace safety and other laws require employers to implement a workplace harassment prevention and response program composed of the following elements.
The first thing you need is a clear written statement letting workers know that the company is dedicated to providing a harassment-free workplace and listing:
- A statement that workplace harassment will not be tolerated from anybody from the highest executives to the most junior workers;
- A description of what is and isn’t workplace harassment—the latter includes constructive, professional criticism by persons in positions of authority;
- Examples of harassment;
- A description of the company’s procedure for reporting and investigating harassment complaints;
- A statement assuring workers that nobody will suffer retaliation for reporting harassment or exercising his/her rights to a harassment-free workplace.
Harassment Reporting Mechanism
Many if not most acts of harassment go unreported. So, it’s imperative to establish a system and set of procedures workers can feel comfortable using to report harassment they experience or witness. The system must provide for keeping personal information about the parties involved—both accuser and accused—confidential and avoid disclosure except where required to investigate or by law.
Harassment Investigation System
There must be a system for investigating reports of harassment promptly, thoroughly and fairly to both accusers and accused. Investigations must be undertaken by a competent person with experience in investigating harassment complaints, ideally a third person from outside the company. Harassment complaints should never be investigated by the people involved in the case, like a supervisor accused.
Harassment Resolution System
You also need a process for resolving complaints on the basis of the investigation results. If the accusations are found to be true, the accused should be subject to immediate and appropriate discipline in accordance with your company’s disciplinary policies and procedures. To ensure fairness and maximize workers’ faith in the system, an increasing number of companies are using third party mediators to resolve harassment matters.
Support for Victims
Companies must show support for harassment victims, e.g., recommending that they get psychological counseling from trusted providers, preferably at company expense. They should not be treated as troublemakers or subject to reprisal of any kind.
Harassment Information and Training
You must ensure all workers get information and training about not only workplace harassment and what it is but also the program measures you’ve put in place to deal with it, e.g., the reporting and investigation processes. Such training and information should be provided when workers first start working and periodically as necessary.
Harassment Incident Reporting
Depending on your jurisdiction, you may have to report incidents of workplace harassment to the government occupational health and safety agency and/or workers’ comp board.
Last but not least, you must monitor your harassment prevention program at least once every 2 years and more frequently in response to incidents, complaints or other indications that the current program is ineffective and needs to be improved.