I run a small company. We recently hired our twentieth employee, which made me think it might be time for an employee handbook. I've been doing some research online, and I keep seeing that employers have to have policies prohibiting harassment. I understand that harassment is bad. But why is having a policy about it so important? Is a policy really going to prevent anyone from acting like a jackass? I've always thought it's more important to lead by example and immediately put a stop to any inappropriate comments or behavior. So do I really need a harassment policy?
Yes, you really do need a harassment policy.
You're right that a policy alone isn't going to do much to shape or change employee behavior. Your good example is very important, as are your efforts to make sure employees don't cross the line between workplace bantering and jokes to harassing conduct. This will go a long way toward making sure that your work environment doesn't turn hostile or abusive for anyone. If you had a policy but ignored it at every turn, it wouldn't be worth the paper it was printed on.
But just as a policy alone isn't enough, your actions alone aren't enough, either. You need both a clear policy and a demonstrated commitment to maintain a harassment-free workplace. A policy educates employees and managers about what constitutes harassment, what types of conduct and statements are prohibited, and what the company will do to stop it. Even at a small company like yours, the owner can't be everywhere at once. Everyone at the company needs to know what types of behavior will not be tolerated.
In addition, a harassment policy can encourage employees to bring misconduct to the company's attention immediately. If harassment takes place away from your watchful eye, this could be the only way you will find out that a potentially troublesome situation is brewing. If employees complain quickly, the company has a chance to deal with the problems right away, before they do more damage and poison the workplace environment.
There's a strong legal reason to have a policy prohibiting harassment as well -- and this is no doubt why the topic kept coming up in your online searches. A harassment policy gives your company protection against certain harassment lawsuits. The Supreme Court has found that an employer can limit its liability for harassment if it takes reasonable steps to prevent and promptly remedy harassment. This means the employer must have a policy prohibiting harassment, including a complaint procedure employees can use to raise their concerns. If an employee complains, the employer must fully investigate and take appropriate disciplinary action against anyone who violates the policy.
An employer that follows these steps will not be liable for harassment it didn't know about, if the employee fails to complain of harassment. (This defense doesn't apply to harassment committed by managers that involves a tangible job action -- like a demotion for complaining, or a promotion for going along with a manager's sexual advances. In these situations, the company will be responsible even if the employee doesn't complain, because the manager's executive decisions are attributable to the company.)
So by all means, write a policy prohibiting harassment and explaining how employees can complain. And keep on setting a good example -- and nipping inappropriate behavior in the bud -- at your workplace. Together, these strategies will help keep you out of legal trouble and help maintain the positive environment at your company.
by: Lisa Guerin, J.D.