Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Guest Post: When and How to Revise Your Anti-Harassment Policy

Below is a guest post from Steven Burrell, an HR expert.  I believe some of our readers will find this information useful:   

If an employee files a harassment lawsuit, it can spell doom for a small business just starting out that doesn't have much money. And even for larger companies, it means taking time and resources away from other parts of the business in order to deal with the problem.

But what is workplace harassment, exactly? Contrary to popular belief, someone doesn't have to be specifically targeted or discriminated against to sue. Any actions, behavior, conduct, or statements made about or to a person or group that creates a work environment deemed "uncomfortable" can be considered harassment. Oftentimes when a claim of workplace harassment is put forward, it is done so in conjunction with one claiming a "hostile work environment."

With such a wide umbrella covering the things that could potentially be considered harassment, most businesses today include a policy about harassment in their handbook and outline what is considered unacceptable behavior in a broad and all-encompassing manner. Many even include training for new employees on the rules and put out educational material to help them better understand the policy and the repercussions.

But even if you have a policy, that doesn't mean that you can sit on your laurels. Here are several reasons you might want to revise your current policy.

The law has changed. Many companies model their policies after local and national laws on workplace harassment, but if you have had your policy in place for a long time, it's quite possible that updates to the law have made it obsolete. It is of vital importance that you always stay up-to-date on any alterations to the law, because one small omission could end up being the thing that takes a huge bite out of your company coffers.

You've had an incident. No company wants to have to deal with a situation where one of their employees feels uncomfortable at work, but sometimes it happens. If you are in the middle of dealing with an incident of harassment or recently went through one - whether or not it turned into a lawsuit - it's probably a good time to look at your existing policy and see if there is anything that you can clarify or strengthen. This way, you're not only protecting yourself, but your employees from having to go through a similar situation.

To go above and beyond. One of the best ways to avoid a lawsuit is to make sure that your policy on harassment not only meets the requirements of the law, but exceeds them. In fact, it can be quite valuable to even state in the text of the policy that the company holds its employees to a higher standard than the current laws, and that conduct and comments don't have to violate the law in order to violate company policies. This way, it can be easier for you to handle things in-house when an employee says they feel harassed without it escalating into a full-blown legal claim.

For example, some lawyers use the mere evidence that you disciplined an employee or had them go through counseling to prove that there was harassment that violates the law, but if your policies go beyond what the law requires, this can be difficult to prove.

If and when you do decide to make a change to your current harassment policy, don't just go into it blindly and start altering the wording. Consult with a lawyer who has expertise in this area. You need legal professionals crafting the language in the statement so that it's airtight - both for clever attorneys who try to come in and parse your words in order to help their client sue the company, and for employees looking for a way to argue that they didn't know their behavior was wrong.

About the Author:
Steven Burrell has been writing about business solutions and human resources for many years. Click here to read more about how employee assessment testing can benefit your business.

This blog is for general informational purposes and represents only the views of Steven Burrell, the author of the post.  It is not a legal advice.  

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