Take These 8 Steps to Fight Harassment

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. April 6, 2021
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a woman being harassed by a man at her desk

Workplace leaders should follow eight key tenets to discourage harassment and bullying, according to Jonathan Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia, speaking April 6 at the Society for Human Resource Management's Employment Law & Compliance virtual conference.

1. Model respect and civility. Don't shut an employee down with a caustic comment during a meeting, for example, but if someone says something that is unclear, ask for clarification.

2. Refrain from harassing employees and other unacceptable conduct. Emphasize the importance of respect and civility during performance management. If an employee's dignity is taken away, he or she is more likely to sue, Segal noted.

3. Instill a culture of reporting complaints to HR. Make clear to supervisors and directors that they need to report claims of harassment to HR, as well as retaliation complaints, wage and hour claims, and allegations of waste and abuse. Once a complaint is reported, the company can determine if something went wrong and address the issue if necessary.

4. Respond proactively to harassing and unacceptable conduct even in the absence of a complaint. Tell your employees about their responsibilities as bystanders. When someone says something unacceptable, a leader should speak up, Segal said. So if someone tells a co-worker during a meeting "You look sexy today," any manager present should call out the employee for saying something unacceptable and counter to the organization's culture.

5. Work with HR to remedy unacceptable conduct. HR does not have exclusive ownership of respectful and civil behavior. Leaders need to work with HR and keep in mind that there's no "rock-star defense" for unacceptable conduct by their star performers, Segal said. If an offending employee objects to discipline by saying, "But I bring a lot of money into the organization," note that there can't be exceptions to the rules.

6. Refrain from engaging in retaliatory conduct. Segal emphasized that employers should prohibit retaliatory conduct, which goes beyond prohibiting unlawful retaliation. Some retaliation may not be material enough to be unlawful. Suppose a worker, Latisha, files a complaint against a co-worker, George. They continue to work well together for the most part, but when George sees Latisha in the hall, he no longer acknowledges her and doesn't respond to her when she says hello. This may not be material enough to constitute unlawful retaliation, but it creates a toxic culture. Segal said employers need to create cultures where employees aren't afraid to speak up out of fear of such cultural retaliation.

7. Refrain from interfering in investigations. Sometimes leaders try telling witnesses what to say during investigations. Obstructing an employer investigation is a separate wrong apart from retaliation and one that must be avoided if there is to be a culture of respect.

8. Promote inclusion. Promoting inclusion means more than fostering a civil and respectful environment so people can reach their full potential. It also means ensuring leaders aren't succumbing to implicit bias, either by being attracted to those who are similar to themselves or avoiding those who are different, Segal cautioned.

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