The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that preventative measures are one of the best ways to combat workplace discrimination and harassment. Saying that, however, is easier than accomplishing it. Here are some tips on how to create a “friendly” workplace, where discrimination and harassment cease to exist. This is what you should do:
• Establish an anti-discrimination and an anti-harassment policy that complies with federal and state laws. Provide the policy to your employees, and be prepared to abide by and enforce the policy.
• Invest time and expense into diversity training and awareness. Many types of harassment and discrimination spring from ignorance.
• Inform supervisors and other managerial personnel that they are under strict orders to immediately report to you any complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment that they receive or any acts of harassment or discrimination of which they are aware.
• Designate a managerial or personnel employee to be in charge of receiving discrimination and sexual harassment complaints.
• Take any complaints of discrimination and harassment seriously, no matter how trivial or unbelievable they may seem at first glance. Employers have an affirmative duty to promptly investigate all complaints of discrimination and harassment.
• When investigating a claim, keep written documentation of your investigation efforts. Records should include the names of individuals with whom you spoke to and the gist of their conversations about the matter.
• Maintain levels of confidentiality and respond to discrimination and harassment claims in a discreet manner. The alleged victim deserves to be spared further embarrassment and harm, and the accused parties (particularly if they dispute the complaint) deserve some privacy as well. Limit the dissemination of information about the complaint to people who are on a need-to-know basis.
• Do not discourage or threaten employees who decide to seek the assistance of a federal or state human rights or employee rights agency or commission. They have a legal right to seek the counsel and assistance of the government, and if you try to prevent them from seeking that help, or penalize them if they do, you can face serious legal consequences.
• Consider the appropriateness of making interim decisions, while your investigation is proceeding, to prevent further harassment. For example, you cannot fire the accused harasser, or take away all of his or her job responsibilities while the investigation is being conducted. However, you may be able to move him or her to a different area of the office, or change his or her work hours so that the victim and harasser do not have further, potentially harmful, exposure to each other.
Remedying Discrimination or Harassment
If you find that discrimination or harassment has occurred, make sure to take appropriate measures. For example, it may be appropriate to immediately terminate an employee who sexually attacked another employee. However, it may not be appropriate to fire an employee who brought one pornographic picture to the office that was seen or given to a person who was offended by it. If you over-penalize an employee, or under-penalize them, the rest of your workforce may receive mixed messages about your commitment to fairly and appropriately handle matters of discrimination and harassment.
Take steps to prevent future episodes of discrimination and harassment. Hold annual meetings with supervisors to remind them of their obligations to report incidents of discrimination or harassment that they observe or are told about.
Consider conducting an annual anonymous questionnaire for employees that asks whether they have experienced any discriminatory or harassing behavior in the past year. This questionnaire will allow you to have a better idea of what is happening day-to-day with your company and will also show, should it be needed in the future, that you were aware of the potential for improper workplace behavior and that you were taking steps to inform yourself about it and look for ways to prevent it.
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