Play it Safe: Enforcing Zero Tolerance for Workplace Harassment—and Retaliation

It’s a good sign that companies are training employees how to keep abuse and harassment out of the workplace. It’s also a good sign that more people are coming forward to report unlawful and offensive conduct.

What’s not a good sign is that in 2014, 62 percent of all harassment claims were due to retaliation. Although there are laws that are supposed to protect a person who files a harassment claim, it turns out that employees are still being targeted after filing a complaint.

In the fall of 2015, two potato packing plants in Colorado were ordered to pay $450,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused the companies of retaliation and harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that Smokin’ Spuds and Farming Technology were guilty of subjecting more than 12 women to verbal sexual harassment and unwelcome physical contact.

In response to the harassment claim, the company fired three of the women for taking their complaints to management officials. Human resource specialists hope incidents like this can be eliminated through training and common sense.

“We wouldn’t have 62 percent retaliation claims nationwide if everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing,” says Tracee Comstock, Salt Lake Society of Human Resource Management 2015 president. “We need to create an open-door policy where employees can discuss any type of situation without fear of ridicule, retaliation or reprisals.”

Harassment Education

Cases like the situation in Colorado make it even harder for someone to come forward with a complaint against a co-worker or manager. While laws are created to protect employees from retaliation through firing, demotion or other means, vengeful actions still occur. So how can companies guarantee an employee’s claim will be taken seriously, and how can an employee protect themselves after reporting an incident?

First, ongoing training is essential. Companies often think they can’t afford training, so they postpone training or have a manger conduct the workshops. But Comstock says you should hire someone outside the company to do the training. “Have a third-party employment attorney handle that. No matter how small or large your company is, you always need to do your anti-harassment training with managers yearly, maybe even every six months.”

Regular trainings help remind employees exactly what “unwelcome conduct” entails. Off-color comments based on a person’s race, religion, gender, age, national origin or color becomes unlawful when that continued conduct creates a hostile work environment. Physical threats or assaults, offensive jokes or slurs, and constant ridicule are all incidents that could land employees or managers in hot water.

“Most companies have embraced being equal opportunity employers, now we have to go a step further to keep harassment out of the workplace … Be careful as employers and ensure that you say the right thing, and think before you say things or act,” says Comstock.

Several Applied Technology Colleges in Utah provide Custom Fit Training where they work with companies to train managers and human resource directors on how to handle harassment and discrimination situations.

Workshops cover topics like how to conduct a fair investigation, how to correctly document a claim, how to treat the accused and the accuser without bias, how to restore a healthy work environment and how to encourage employees to come forward if they feel harassment is happening.

It also discusses what isn’t harassment. People with different backgrounds, work ethics and personal habits often annoy each other, but petty slights, irritations or aggravations are not usually considered harassment. “Most companies have anti-harassment policies and it’s important for us to understand what harassment is, and to make sure our managers understand,” Comstock says.

Stick to Protocols

Tyler Cotterell is an executive vice president at NaviTrust, an experienced search and recruitment firm. The company partners with HR professionals to staff organizations all over the world. Cotterell says by following specific protocols, managers and HR resource people can make the complaint process go smoother for all parties.

Keeping an open mind, and listening with empathy and compassion will provide the accuser with a sense of validation. “People consider the HR person to be a confidant, almost treating their discussion as a confessional,” Cotterell says. “Many people have waited a long time before saying anything because they don’t want to ruffle feathers or cause trouble.”

After hearing the complaint, every harassment claim must be investigated. Be confidential, but as thorough as possible. Talk to co-workers, get statements and document all responses. Try to avoid a situation where employees begin to take sides for or against the alleged harasser.

He-said/she-said scenarios are the hardest claims to investigate, but with so much at stake (like the accused being fired), specific steps must be followed. Often with work relationships, behavior gets misunderstood and a discussion between the two parties is all it takes to resolve a conflict.

“It’s easy to cross the line with inappropriate behavior or joking because you think a co-worker knows you’re not serious. But that’s not always the case,” Cotterell says. “Unfortunately, there are also people whose social filters are broken and they are constantly misbehaving. They don’t realize that some things just aren’t said around people you don’t know very well.”

There are also important steps to take for the person being harassed. Keep detailed documentation of each occurrence, including compiling witness statements when possible. Find a champion you trust who will hear you out—and be bold. “If it’s something that happens enough to cause you concern, or your performance is suffering and you’re not excited about coming to work, that’s when you have to take steps to get the situation corrected,” says Cotterell.

Once the investigation is complete, let employees involved know the outcome and help them talk about their feelings and the situation. Sometimes, harassment claims can create a hostile environment at work that needs to be discussed and repaired. Make sure to lay out steps to avoid an incident reoccurring, but be sure to follow procedures if it happens again.

“It’s a balance,” says Cotterell. “You don’t want to turn [your workplace] into East Germany, where everybody is too paranoid to do anything for fear of repercussions . . . but you can’t take harassment situations lightly.”