How is workplace harassment defined in Pennsylvania?
Workplace harassment is defined as any unwelcome or unwanted action done with the intent to irritate, annoy, frighten, or alarm another that happens to an employee by either their co-worker or supervisor. Workplace harassment does not have to happen at the office or on a jobsite and can happen by email, text, or at a company event.
5 tips for avoiding workplace harassment
By the time employers reach out to us for legal advice, workplace harassment has already happened and a lawsuit is already in the works . This blog seeks to provide useful tips to help employers be proactive about preventing harassment and providing a safe working environment for their employees.
1. Develop in depth training and policies regarding workplace harassment
Your first line of defense is your training and policies. Harassment policies should be clear and concise and available in the employee handbook. Most importantly, make sure that it has the definition of sexual harassment and a zero tolerance policy. Secondly, the policy should describe a clear procedure for making a complaint and how the employer you will discipline wrong doers.
It is good practice to provide every new employee with a copy of the handbook on their start date and have them sign a document confirming that they read it. Lastly, develop training that occurs more often than on the employee’s start date. Review your company’s training and policies regularly and communicate expectations to your employees periodically to enforce your company’s stance on harassment.
Training helps educate an employee about different types of harassment. For example, many people think sexual harassment is sexual jokes or inappropriate touching. However, as discussed in our previous blog, sexual harassment is a broad term. You want your employees to understand that. Consider having your employees sign a paper confirming they read the handbook and each time you update it. Also, maintain a record of what materials you reviewed with an employee, as it will almost certainly come up and will help establish your company’s efforts if a lawsuit is filed.
2. Provide a complaint process for reporting workplace harassment
Next, work with your HR department to set up an efficient complaint process. Make sure your employees are trained on how to properly use the complaint process. When you receive a complaint, act immediately, thoroughly investigate it, and document the process. Interview the employee, the alleged harasser, and all witnesses to the alleged harassment. Try to keep the complaint process as confidential as possible and treat any breach of confidentiality seriously. When the investigation is concluded, make sure to update the employee of your findings and any actions taken. As always, maintain good records of your company’s investigation everything.
3. Provide support to employees
Your employees should know that if they have questions about policy or complaint procedures, they can feel safe to go to your HR department for answers. You cannot fix issues you do not know about. If your employees are comfortable coming forward you can avoid nasty surprises. Generally, a supported employee will be much more likely to report things before they turn into major disputes.
It is also important that employees who make complaints are not retaliated against. Here’s a helpful link to the EEOC definition of retaliation. This is not only good policy, it is also against the law (more on that in a separate post). Even if you fix the harassment issue, if an employee is retaliated against, your company can still be exposed to lawsuits.
4. Take a walk around the office
Going along with the previous tip, if you are in a managerial or supervisor position, make sure you are actively present in your office. For example, take a walk around your workplace, talk to your employees, observe interactions, and note any uncomfortable situations. The sooner you notice an issue, the easier it is to correct. Ask employees for their input and take any concerns or suggestions seriously. If your office is primarily work from home, send out periodic confidential surveys to get feedback. Don’t forget that harassment can occur through the computer whether through group chats, emails, or zoom meetings and your company can still be liable.
5. Save the legalese for the lawyers
Finally, while the legal terms and definitions are important for lawyers and courtrooms, employees don’t need to know all the details. It’s important they understand what sexual harassment is, but focusing on the laws and regulations during trainings is a quick way for employees to lose interest. Instead, focus on your company’s values and principles and the professional and respectful behavior you expect your managers and employees to adhere to. (But if learning legal terms is your thing…check out and subscribe to our legalese videos!)
There is no one way to completely stop harassment in your workplace. Managing your company environment requires a whole toolbox. Consider your training, policies, and complaint processes just some of the tools you can use to ensure a workplace where everyone feels equal and secure. However, if you are reading this blog after you have already had an incident, someone has filed an EEOC complaint against you, or you are facing a lawsuit, call us at 215-876-0800 or fill out a contact form. At Kaminsky Law our experienced employment lawyers can help.