HR Headaches: Harassment takes many forms but is almost always expensive

Whether you call it alleged harassment, bullying or something else, negative workplace behavior can be expensive. Just ask AT&T, which was recently assessed $5 million in punitive damages for alleged discrimination against a Kansas City woman who had converted to Islam.

The details of the alleged behavior are less important here than the lesson that employers should gain. In the business setting, bullying and harassment directed at employees by employers has been a staple at the table for years. Bullying directed at employees by other employees, often ignored as office drama by employers, also exists in abundance. The government, the courts and the media are increasingly focused on these issues.

The government and the courts’ position is that employers cannot do too much to protect employees. They can do too little (they can underreact), and that will get them in trouble. But they can’t do too much to protect employees while they are on the job. The expectation is that employers will take a comprehensive approach to providing a completely safe environment for their employees. If the employers cannot or will not do this, they face the wrath and ire of federal and state governments.

If sexuality is involved, it’s called sexual harassment. If sexuality is not involved, it’s just called harassment, but can be equally serious on several levels. The existence of bullying or harassment in the workplace could clearly be labeled a hostile work environment. If it is perpetrated from management to employee, it could even be labeled Disparate Impact, which is the belief that an employee is subject to greater on the job scrutiny than other employees. In any event, harassment will usually attract the attention of the government, and it’s not the attention management ever wants or needs.

So, how do you prevent it in your workplace?

The solution starts with a policy forbidding bullying behavior. Reminders, both ongoing and intermittent, follow up the policy. This is followed by mandatory training for all existing and future employees and is capped off by management’s zero tolerance response if it does happen in the workplace.

Part of the response is values-based. A values statement could include: It is not a part of the values of this organization to allow anyone to bully our employees. If it is discovered to exist, it will be dealt with quickly and definitively. Our values are that employees are to be treated with dignity, courtesy and respect. At our company, we will hold all employees at all levels accountable to treat all other employees thusly.

If allegations of violations are found to exist, management must investigate or cause an investigation to occur in a thorough and timely manner. If the allegations are substantiated, then harsh penalties, including written warnings or even terminations, should occur. If the company does not handle the matter internally, it should expect the matter to be handled externally. And, if these external forces find that the company underreacted or otherwise allowed the harassment to occur, the company can expect fines and right to sue letters issued. Trust me: At that point, it is not pretty.

 Steve Cohen is president/partner of Labor Management Advisory Group Inc., and HR Solutions: On-Call. He has more than 35 years of specialized experience solving HR problems in companies of all sizes. He recently wrote “Mess Management: Lessons from a Corporate Hit Man.” He’ll be providing insight on HR topics every month exclusively for KCBCentral.