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Here is how HR can help prevent the missteps that could cost your company big in court.
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Outrageously egregious conduct frequently carries a steep price tag for employers-and managers. At times, companies even may be hit with punitive damages, which are intended both to punish the company and to deter others from similar conduct. In such cases, the legal damages alone can soar into the millions. But even when no legal action is taken, extreme misbehavior can poison morale-decreasing productivity, increasing absenteeism and turnover, driving up health care costs for stressed-out employees, and generally dragging down the company's bottom line.
The targets of abuse aren't the only ones who suffer. Co-workers may become stressed-out, too. "Employees who observe or hear about harassment that goes unchallenged may feel anxious, fearing that they will be next, or depressed, feeling like the organization doesn't care about its employees," says Kathleen Rospenda, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But it doesn't have to be this way. The sooner you spot the warning signs of egregious behavior, the better your chances of being able to stop it before it starts.
Mistreatment at the hands of co-workers or supervisors is nothing new, of course. Certainly, the lecherous male boss who can't keep his eyes and hands off the female staff has been around for centuries. Other prime targets for harassers and abusers may shift with the political winds. In today's workplace, be on the alert-and ready to take action-if your employees are targeting these new groups of harassment victims:
1. "Homosexual" victims. In many workplaces, the harshest abuse is reserved for individuals who are perceived as homosexual-regardless of whether they are or are not. The majority of such cases seem to involve male-on-male harassment, says Dale Carpenter, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who specializes in sexual orientation issues. Carpenter also believes that such male-on-male harassment is often more severe than other types. "There's typically more physical intimidation and more relentless teasing involved," Carpenter says. He recommends watching for teasing that is based on "an individual's failure to conform to gender expectations, such as calling a man a 'sissy.' That's a warning signal that an illegal environment of harassment may be in the process of being created."
2. Teenage victims. A spate of recent lawsuits has involved teenage plaintiffs, some of them young girls who were groped, asked for lap dances or even raped. In some cases, young workers are the victims of egregious abuse by other young employees. In such cases, lack of work experience could be a factor, says Naomi Earp, vice chair at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "If you have a 16- or 17-year-old worker with an 18- or 19-year-old supervisor, it could be argued that both the employee and the manager are relatively new to the workplace and may not fully understand the rules of behavior there," she explains.
3. Muslim victims. Since Sept. 11, 2001, much of the religion-based harassment has been directed at Muslims, and it's a trend that shows no sign of abating soon. For example, Linda Ordonio-Dixon, a senior trial attorney at the EEOC's San Francisco District Office, worked on a case in which four Pakistani Muslim workers at a California steel plant alleged they were ridiculed during their daily prayers, mocked for their traditional dress and called names. "The harassment went on for a number of years, it was conducted in concert with the supervisors, and there was a significant amount of emotional distress experienced by the claimants," says Ordonio-Dixon. The result: a $1.1 million settlement. The lesson: Don't ignore fundamental anti-harassment policies and procedures.
When confronted with their bad behavior, the worst harassers and abusers often claim they either didn't realize it was unwelcome or had intended it as a joke. "Lisa" says that was the case with her former boss, the editorial director at a professional association who claimed she was joking when she made repeated comments comparing Lisa to a prostitute and a "slut." But that explanation didn't fly, says Lisa, when the editorial director continued making the comments
after Lisa complained.
The implication is that many chronic offenders may not be entirely feigning ignorance about the havoc they wreak. When confronting such individuals, you may need to spell out the problem in very clear, concrete terms. And the sooner you get involved, the better your chances of preventing a relatively minor incident from spiraling into something much more sinister and destructive.
Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M., who has specialized in health and psychology issues for two decades. She holds a master's degree in health psychology from Capella University and is pursuing a Ph.D. in health psychology through Northcentral University.
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