Key points about preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace:
- Harassment and discrimination create unwelcoming and unsafe work environments.
- You can prevent these issues with a dedicated workplace harassment prevention policy, employee training, and a culture of respect.
- Our free Workplace Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy template can help you get started.
These numbers may seem staggering, but they’re just the reported instances. In reality, only 50% of people report harassment. This means that the total number of people who have experienced harassment is actually much higher.
Recent pushes like the #MeToo movement have helped to spark conversations and drive change. Unfortunately, harassment and discrimination remain issues in the workplace. These steps can help you prevent workplace harassment and discrimination in your organization.
What is workplace harassment and discrimination?
When you hear the term “harassment in the workplace,” you probably think of sexual harassment first. After all, this is the most common form of workplace harassment. It consists of 50% of all reported claims.
However, harassment isn’t always sexual in nature. Harassment is a type of discrimination, and it can take many forms. Harassment occurs any time someone experiences unwelcome conduct based on:
- Genetic information (including family medical history)
- National origin
- Sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy)
- Other characteristics protected by federal, state, or local laws
What is harassment prevention?
Harassment prevention is a set of initiatives that organizations use to reduce harassment and discrimination. These programs often include anti-harassment policies and training courses.
Harassment and discrimination should never be tolerated. Unfortunately, the statistics tell us that both occur frequently, especially in work environments. Implementing preventative measures is the best way to eliminate harassment in the workplace.
Why is harassment prevention important?
First and foremost, prevention is important for the well-being of your employees. Everyone deserves to work in a safe environment free from harassment and discrimination.
Secondly, no one will be able to do their best work in an unsafe environment. Productivity, performance, and morale will suffer. Depending on the situation, harassment may even be illegal. As such, having a harassment prevention plan is important not just for the safety of your employees, but also for legal reasons.
Are employers liable for harassment? Are employees?
In certain circumstances, yes, employers may be liable for workplace harassment.
Individual employees may also be personally liable for their harassment or any conduct that creates a hostile work environment for someone else.
The EEOC investigates harassment and discrimination claims on a case-by-case basis. To determine whether a claim is illegal, they consider the conduct itself and the surrounding context, including who did the harassing.
You’re automatically liable if a supervisor harasses an employee and takes a “negative employment action” against them. This may include:
- Failure to promote or hire
- Loss of wages
Even if a supervisor doesn’t take negative employment action against an employee, any behavior that creates a hostile work environment is still unacceptable. In these cases, you may still be liable for the supervisor’s conduct. The only way you may be able to avoid liability is if you can prove that:
- You promptly tried to prevent and correct the harassing behavior, and
- The employee failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities you provide.
If non-supervisory employees or non-employees (like independent contractors or customers on the premises) harass someone, you’re liable if you:
- Knew about the harassment and
- Failed to take prompt corrective action.
3 ways to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace
There is no one solution you can adopt to prevent harassment and discrimination. Rather, it requires a series of different initiatives working in tandem. Here are 3 harassment prevention strategies you can leverage in your workplace.
Create a clear workplace harassment prevention policy
A dedicated anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy is a crucial step toward creating a safer workplace. Once you create your policy, share it with your employees and ask them to sign or acknowledge it. Your workplace harassment prevention policy should include:
An anti-harassment and anti-discrimination statement
This section should outline your company’s commitment to providing a workplace free from harassment of any kind. Clearly state that any form of harassment or discrimination will not be tolerated.
Then explain how federal and state laws define harassment and discrimination. In most cases, harassment is any unwelcome conduct directed at someone because they belong to a “protected category.” Protected categories include:
- Domestic violence victim status
- Gender and gender identity
- Genetic information
- Marital status
- Medical history
- Military or veteran status
- National origin
- Physical or mental disability
- Political affiliation
- Religion (including dress and grooming)
- Sexual orientation
- Other characteristics protected by federal, state, or local laws
Examples of harassment and discrimination in the workplace
Harassment and discrimination can be broad terms. Employees may not know that a certain behavior or action is, indeed, discriminatory. Include some examples to help them identify and avoid these attitudes and behaviors in the workplace.
Some examples to list in your policy include:
- Unwanted sexual advances
- Retaliation, or threat of retaliation, for refusing advances or requests
- Displaying or sharing derogatory or sexually suggestive content
- Making derogatory slurs
- Ongoing teasing or derogatory remarks about someone’s religious or cultural practices
- Ongoing teasing or derogatory remarks about someone’s sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity
- Physical conduct (such as touching or assault)
Be sure to note that your list of examples is not exhaustive. Other actions, behaviors, and attitudes not listed in your policy may still be considered harassment.
How to report harassment or discrimination at work
If someone experiences or witnesses harassment, discrimination, or retaliation, outline the steps they should take to report the incident. These steps should be clear and easy to understand.
In general, a complaint process may look something like this:
- The individual should submit the complaint to their manager or supervisor as soon as possible, preferably in writing. The manager will report the complaint to the HR director or designated representative.
- If the manager or supervisor is the one responsible for the harassment, the individual may submit their complaint directly to HR or the designated representative.
- The designated representative will conduct a fair, timely, and thorough investigation. They may request assistance from legal counsel and senior management.
- If the harassment claim involves a manager or supervisor, the representative will decide whether that manager will continue to be present at work or take leave (paid or unpaid) during the investigation.
- The designated representative may interview the person who filed the complaint. They may also speak with anyone involved in the incident, including witnesses. Everyone involved in the investigation will sign a confidentiality agreement.
- All parties conducting the investigation will make decisions based on facts and evidence.
- Once the investigation is complete, the designated representative will submit a written report of their findings to the company and the individual who filed the complaint.
- If the representative determines that harassment, discrimination, or retaliation has occurred, they will recommend appropriate disciplinary action.
- If the representative determines that the investigation was inconclusive or that no violation occurred but the conduct was still problematic, they can recommend preventative measures.
- The company and senior management will review the report along with any associated materials. They will discuss as needed, and then decide which course of action to take.
- The designated representative will share the investigation results with the individual who filed the complaint and the individual mentioned in the complaint.
- If the individual who submitted the complaint is not satisfied with the result, they may request a follow-up investigation within a certain timeframe. The designated representative will review the complaint and resolution again. They may hold a follow-up meeting to further explore the incident. If warranted, they will conduct an additional investigation.
Make your policy as specific as possible. Outline specific responsibilities and timelines. For instance, you may require your company to reach a final decision within 5 business days of receiving the designated representative’s report.
Many people fail to report harassment or discrimination for fear of retaliation. Include a section in your policy that addresses this fear. Make it clear that people who file a harassment claim in good faith will not, under any circumstances, face disciplinary action.
However, you should also include a disclaimer. People who make a claim they know is false may face disciplinary action.
Similarly, anyone accused of harassment must not face retaliation, either. Any form of retaliation can lead to disciplinary action up to, and including, termination.
If you receive a harassment, discrimination, or retaliation complaint, the designated representative should conduct a fair, timely, and thorough investigation. If you haven’t already outlined your investigation process elsewhere in the policy, do so here.
Explain the steps the representative will take to investigate the claim, interview relevant parties, and make unbiased decisions. To stay objective, the representative should evaluate their findings based on the following:
- The severity and frequency of the complaint
- Any prior complaints submitted by the individual
- Any prior complaints lodged against the individual mentioned in the complaint
- The quality and credibility of the evidence (such as eyewitness testimony or firsthand knowledge)
Managers are the ones responsible for enforcing workplace policies on a daily basis. As such, your anti-harassment policy should include manager responsibilities like:
- Implementing your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy
- Making sure employees understand your policy, including how to submit complaints
- Reporting any complaints to the designated representative for investigation
- Assisting with disciplinary action (when necessary)
- Abiding by your policy and conducting themselves in a way that’s consistent with your policy
Provide employee discrimination and harassment prevention training
Having a clear policy is important. For it to work, though, your employees need to understand it. This is where training programs come in.
Training courses help employees identify the various forms of harassment and discrimination. They also help employees understand your policy, your responsibilities as an employer, and their obligations as employees. Additional courses can help managers learn how to respond to claims quickly and effectively to prevent legal issues.
In general, you should provide annual harassment prevention training to all of your employees, regardless of where they work. However, some jurisdictions have explicit requirements. For example, the following locations have specific laws requiring sexual harassment training:
- New York City
- New York State
These areas may mandate specific training programs for your employees. Check your local laws to ensure you stay compliant.
Build a culture of respect
Your company culture influences your employees’ attitudes and behavior. If you build an inclusive, respectful culture, you’re already helping to prevent harassment and discrimination. To be effective, a culture of respect needs to permeate all levels of your organization, starting with leadership.
Encourage employees to speak up, share ideas, and propose changes. Create a space where they can share their thoughts without fear of retaliation.
To facilitate this space, consider using anonymous employee surveys. These surveys give employees the opportunity to share their honest thoughts without revealing their identities. This can make them feel more comfortable when providing feedback. When you can, make meaningful changes based on their responses.
Recognize and reward employees
Recognize employees for their contributions. Employees want to be respected for who they are and what they do. Call out accomplishments and superb performance. Be sure to shout out different people, teams, and departments.
Treat everyone with kindness
Last but not least, treat everyone with courtesy and kindness. It sounds simple, but it can make a big difference. Consider, for instance, providing feedback instead of criticism. Evaluating an employee’s performance is necessary, but the way you do it can either inspire them to grow and succeed or leave them discouraged and unmotivated.
At the same time, be careful not to veer into the territory of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is the pressure to appear happy at all times, regardless of actual circumstances. In the workplace, this type of culture can silence someone experiencing harassment. The pressure to be “happy” can make them feel unseen and unheard. They may fear that they won’t be taken seriously. Be careful not to value the idea of positivity and respect more than the actual experiences of your employees.
Harassment prevention for remote work and hybrid workplaces
You may think that the rise in remote work would have led to a decrease in harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Instead, harassment has moved online to video conferences, text messages, and emails. In fact, one study found that one in four respondents experienced sexual harassment online since the start of COVID-19.
How remote harassment differs from in-person harassment
When harassment happens in a remote setting, it can create different feelings of unease than when it happens in a physical workplace.
Remote work often feels more casual than being on-site. This relaxed environment can cause some individuals to make inappropriate “jokes” and remarks. As a result, people may experience unwelcome remarks while in their own homes. Homes are supposed to be safe spaces, so experiencing harassment there can feel particularly invasive.
On top of that, harassment and discrimination can be harder to spot in a remote world. There may not be bystanders or witnesses to harassing behavior. This perceived breakdown of accountability can increase inappropriate behavior, bullying, and discriminatory remarks.
How to prevent harassment in a remote setting
To prevent harassment and discrimination in a remote setting, there are a few things you can do. First, make sure your policy includes a clause that addresses remote or hybrid settings. Make it clear that harassment and discrimination are not tolerated in the workplace. It doesn’t matter whether that workplace is the office or someone’s home.
You may also need to adjust your harassment complaint and investigative processes. For instance, you may tell remote employees to screenshot or record inappropriate messages, images, phone calls, or videos. These records can serve as evidence and help prevent future incidents.
Sample Workplace Harassment Prevention Policy template
A policy alone isn’t enough to prevent harassment and discrimination. Take sexual harassment as an example. 98% of organizations have sexual harassment policies. But only 3 in 10 people believe their companies take sexual harassment seriously. If you want your policy to actually drive change, commit to it and hold everyone accountable.
Change won’t happen overnight, but the right policy can help you prevent harassment and discrimination in your workplace. You can use our free Workplace Harassment Prevention Policy template to get started. It outlines key information that you can quickly and easily tweak to suit your business. When you’re done, ask your legal advisor to review it to ensure you stay compliant.
Legal Disclaimer: The information contained in this guide is for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstance shall we have any liability to you for any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of the template or reliance on any information provided in this template. Your use of the template and your reliance on any information is solely at your own risk.