By Ashley Kaplan, Esq.

Did you know a single harassment lawsuit can cost more than $100,000 to defend? This is a staggering price tag that would shut down many small businesses. But what can you do? You’re a business owner … not a human resources expert. Your time is stretched thin, and you certainly can’t afford to hire a dedicated HR professional. Fortunately, there are clear, affordable initiatives you can take to maintain a harassment-free environment no matter what your HR situation

First … What is Harassment?

Harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination. It includes all types of hostile physical and verbal conduct based on a person’s sex, race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability or other legally protected characteristic. Beyond the federal-level protections, many states, counties and cities ban harassment based on other characteristics, such as one’s sexual orientation, marital status or political affiliation.

Harassment can rear its ugly head in many ways, whether in person, in writing, by phone, by email, via the Internet or through other means of communication. And while sexual harassment cases command the most attention in the news, other types of lawsuits claiming harassment based on race, color, age and other characteristics aren’t uncommon.

Keep in mind, too, that any employee can be responsible for harassing another employee. Rank doesn’t matter. For example, harassment is prohibited whether it’s committed by an employee against another employee, by an employee against a manager, by a manager against a subordinate, or by a manager against another manager.

Prevention is Key

Due to its ever-present threat – and the far-reaching damage it could cost your business – it’s critical you take harassment seriously. The best approach is to prevent it before it starts. Even without an HR professional taking on the responsibility, following a few simple steps can go a long way toward protecting your business.

To help create a respectful, harassment-free workplace, you should:

  1. Develop a no-harassment policy Every business should have a formal policy in place. Your company’s policy should:
  • Define harassment and specific types of prohibited conduct, with examples
  • Encourage employees to report problems immediately
  • Explain the internal complaint procedure
  • Indicate that complaints will be treated confidentially as much as possible under the circumstances (Never guarantee complete confidentiality)
  • Prohibit retaliation for reporting or participating in any subsequent investigation or lawsuit
  • Confirm that appropriate corrective action will be taken if warranted
  1. Designate at least two contacts within your company to receive harassment complaints. It’s recommended you select and train at least two individuals who can receive and document employee harassment concerns. Be sure to provide their names and complete contact information in your policy.
  2. Distribute and communicate the policy. Send out a policy document for employees to read, sign and date – and keep a copy in their personnel files. In addition, it’s a best practice to reinforce your company’s policy with a notice or poster displayed in an area where all employees gather, such as a break room.
  3. Train your employees and supervisors: Of course, anti-harassment policies are only as effective as the employees and managers who follow them. Surprisingly, many employees don’t know what is considered harassing behavior, nor do managers know how to recognize and respond to it. This is where regular training comes in. You don’t have to conduct the training yourself or hire a professional. Instead, consider online or DVD training solutions to do the bulk of the work for you. Note that some states, such as California, require certain employers to conduct regular anti-harassment training for supervisors. Whether regulated or not, training is crucial for building awareness.

What if You Receive a Complaint?

Your business environment plays a big role in preventing harassment — and can help keep questionable situations from getting out of hand. Employees should feel comfortable sharing their workplace concerns, including harassment.

Here are some tips on what to do if you receive a complaint:

  • Listen to the details of the complaint and let the employee know you take his or her concerns seriously
  • Prepare a written report outlining the details of the complaint
  • Choose an appropriate person who will conduct interviews, review documentation and record findings
  • Act quickly; the EEOC urges employers to respond within 48 hours of receiving a complaint

While this article discusses how to create a harassment-free workplace when you’re the one in charge, be careful with any escalating or complicated situations. In that case, it’s wise to hire an attorney or consultant to cover your legal bases and fully protect your business.

Ashley Kaplan has practiced labor and employment law for more than 20 years, representing employers in a matters ranging from discrimination and harassment litigation to defending FLSA class action lawsuits. In her current role as Senior Employment Law Attorney for ComplyRight, Inc., Ashley handles legal compliance and oversees the teams responsible for researching and developing labor law posting solutions, including the market-leading Poster Guard® Compliance Service, and other HR compliance solutions for businesses of all sizes. @ComplyRight.