HR Specialist

Protecting Your Company from Harassment Claims

In Human Resources on September 17, 2009 at 2:59 pm

When employers consider workplace harassment (and that is often not under the best of circumstances), many think of sexual harassment only. In fact, hostile environment claims can arise from any status protected under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal civil rights laws prohibit harassment to employees based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, and disability. In addition, Oregon law includes gender identity and sexual orientation, among other protected factors.

While Quid pro Quo sexual harassment is often the headline maker, the majority of claims cite offensive behavior that potentially creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Whether it is:

  • Pervasive sexual or gender-based activity or comments; or
  • Conduct that denigrates or shows hostility toward an individual because of the person’s protected class;

“While most claims do not rise to the level of illegal harassment, costs are still high. The standard cost … in Central Oregon is $10,000;”

To be illegal harassment, the conduct must:

  • Interfere with a person’s work performance;
  • Create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment; or
  • Otherwise adversely affect employment opportunities.

While most claims do not rise to the level of illegal harassment, costs are still high. The standard cost of an attorney’s harassment investigation in Central Oregon is $10,000; not to mention the decreased moral and productivity that can easily result. The goal, of course, is to stop offensive behavior before it rises to a violation of law.

The first preventive step is a comprehensive Harassment-Free Workplace policy in the employee handbook. The policy should specifically prohibit all forms of harassment and include the following elements:

  • Definitions of harassment and prohibited conduct;
  • A multiple-avenue complaint and resolution process;
  • A “no retaliation” statement.

As always implement the policy consistently, take all complaints seriously, and investigate every complaint quickly, thoroughly, and impartially.

What else to do to best protect your company from discrimination and harassment claims?

  • Provide annual or bi-annual harassment training for all employees;
  • Scrutinize all employment discussions for potential retaliation; and
  • Accurately and thoroughly document all employment decisions.

As most complaints are the direct results of the decisions and actions of managers who don’t understand the laws, it is vitally important to provide basic employment law and leadership skills training for all supervisors.


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