Workplace harassment has become a major issue for employers, because a single claim can seriously damage a company's bottom line. And it's not just large corporations that are at risk. Private-sector organizations with 15-100 employees are the most common targets of harassment claims.
"Sexual harassment gets most of the headlines, but settlements and jury verdicts are frequently based on claims of harassment based on race, color, national origin, religion, age, disability and other protected categories," says Ashley Kaplan, head of the labor law team at Sunrise, Fla.-based G.Neil Corp.
To protect yourself from these risks, she says, take action to prevent harassment from occurring and minimize your liability if a claim is ever filed.
What Employers Need to Know
"The anti-discrimination statutes are not a handbook on personal behavior," Kaplan explains. "Thus, federal law does not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious.
"Rather, the conduct must be so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the individual's employment if the harassment culminates in a tangible employment action or is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment."
Hostile work environment harassment occurs when an unwelcome comment or conduct based on sex, race or other legally protected characteristics unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
Some Workplace Trends to Keep Your Eye On
The EEOC gets about 20,000 age discrimination claims every year, but many experts say it's just a matter of time before this rate will go up Baby Boomers and others over the age of 40 make up about half of the national workforce.
Complaints alleging religious discrimination have increased 75% in the past decade, while claims of racial harassment are declining. Greater religious diversity and awareness in the workforce probably will bring more complaints against employers, Kaplan predicts.
A recent Tanenbaum Center survey of HR professionals found that a mere 4% of U.S. companies has policies that specifically address religious discrimination and harassment at work.
Kaplan recommends three actions for employers to take immediately for self-protection:
Review your policies to ensure that they do not pertain solely to harassment based on sex.
Train managers, supervisors and line employees on the need to prevent all forms of harassment.
Take all harassment claims seriously, investigate them fully, and take appropriate remedial action promptly.
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