It’s more than sex Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

When you mention harassment in the workplace, most people think of the stereotypical male boss chasing his female secretary around the desk. But harassment today has gone far beyond sexual comments and behaviors to include harassment focused on religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or military status, to name just a few, says S. A. “Sam” Murray, CEO of ManagEase Inc.

“Employers are prohibited from having an environment where harassment occurs based on any protected category,” Murray says. But if harassment occurs despite your best efforts, your company is protected if you have an appropriately drafted harassment policy and procedures in place.

“Employers aren’t obligated under the law to police harassment,” she says. “Generally, the law lets employers off the hook if they have trained their employees about harassment, have a harassment policy in place and distribute it to their employees on an annual basis, respond to claims immediately and expeditiously handle resolutions to any complaints that are made.”

Smart Business spoke with Murray about how to protect your company against claims of harassment, both sexual and otherwise.

How do you make employees aware of what is unacceptable behavior in the workplace?

You need to have a policy that defines the kinds of behaviors considered a violation of the rules. As an employer, your policy should be stricter than what the law would otherwise allow. In other words, it may not legally qualify as sexual harassment to hug someone in a work environment, but because that behavior can become problematic and create a claim, it should be included in the policy as prohibited behavior.

Having a very strict and defined policy makes it very easy for you to approach an employee and say, ‘You need to know that your behavior does not comply with our harassment policy, and you need to stop that behavior.’ Then you can correct them and give them examples of how they should be behaving instead.

How can you prevent harassment in the workplace?

That’s done through training. All companies should at least train their managers. In California, the law requires companies with 50 or more employees to train managers every two years. Train your managers on how to observe for infractions, enforce policies and set a good example. On top of that, create procedures that encourage people to come in and address their concerns before the behavior becomes a formal complaint.

The law requires that an employer investigate all complaints of harassment, so being responsive to complaints and correcting them in a way that is positive for all parties encourages people to feel comfortable bringing their concerns forward.

Educating employees about various cultures, beliefs, practices and values is also important in creating an environment of tolerance and courtesy.

How can an employer create a policy regarding harassment?

California provides a brochure that identifies what harassment is, but I don’t encourage companies to use that brochure because it directs employees to contact a federal agency if they have a complaint, and that agency tends to focus on policing, not problem-solving. It’s better to turn to your attorney or a qualified HR source to create a policy.

Companies that try to do it themselves tend to end up with policies that are too short and focus only on sexual harassment. Frankly, that’s not where the majority of claims are coming from these days. Companies with homegrown efforts think they are covered, but they do not have a comprehensive policy that really protects them.

What types of things should be covered in a harassment policy?

There’s so much diversity now in the workplace that it creates opportunities for people to make fun of differences. Telling ethnic jokes could be harassment. Telling religious jokes or age-related jokes or making fun of people who are older or forgetful would also be considered harassment.

Companies are seeing more age and ethnic types of complaints and less sexual harassment because most people have been exposed to sexual harassment information on TV or the Internet or via training, and it’s understood by most people that this behavior is wrong.

Many employees are still shocked to find out that they can’t make fun of another employee’s ethnic background. They may have been raised with these behaviors in their home or see it in the movies and they think it’s a normal thing to do. They may even think they’re taking a shortcut to a friendship by razzing the person. They don’t realize that people feel singled out and embarrassed.

You see an employee, or worse, a manager making fun of another employee’s accent or religious practices and he thinks he’s being funny. Instead, he’s really mocking a coworker in a humiliating way and impacting the work relationship and even the company’s image.

When you point out the effects of this behavior on the person being mocked some people get it. Others persist in thinking they can say what they want. What they don’t realize is that the employment environment has specific rules that provide for fair play and equal opportunity. You don’t have the same kind of freedom that you do standing on a street corner or sitting in your kitchen and espousing your views. In a work environment, there are restrictions and requirements and companies run much better when these are honored by all.

S. A. “Sam” Murray is CEO of ManagEase Inc. Reach her at (714) 378-0880 or sam@managease.com.