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Harassment Prevention for the 
Small Business Owner 

      by Illysa Izenberg   

A supervisor reprimands an employee accused of harassment with, "I don't know what you say in Louisiana, but we don't talk that way in Maryland."

A receiving clerk mentions to her foreman that a "nasty note" was left on her desk. He tells her to let him know if it happens again. He neither asks for the note nor tells the company owner or personnel office-thereby disabling any investigation.

A strong man hired to engage in physical labor complains to his boss that a female customer keeps asking him out and sending him love letters. His boss laughs, and says, "what, can't you handle a woman?"

A company-owner instructs an employee accused of harassment to apologize in writing to his accuser. Instead, the accused goes to the woman's office-ostensibly to offer his apology in person-and asks her what was said to offend her. The accuser responds that she cannot remember. He assumes the situation is closed.

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Each of these true situations occurs daily in workplaces around the country. They seem harmless enough, yet in each case management has not utilized successful tools for preventing harassment; worse, it has set the stage for further conflict. And in each case, it is the company owner who will be held financially liable for future harassment.

Small business owners-many of whom do not have in-house human resources professionals upon whom to rely-- must learn the legal and practical definition of harassment, obtain tools for identifying behaviors that can be seen as harassing, understand their liabilities, and focus on ways to prevent harassment.

Many business owners understand that Courts will minimize punitive damages when companies show reasonable care in preventing harassment. Showing reasonable care is also the first step toward creating an inclusive, respectful, and productive workplace.

There are four components to showing reasonable care in preventing harassment:

  1. Provide a harassment policy: this clearly written policy covers the definition of harassment, the behaviors the company finds unacceptable, procedures employees should follow if they witness or experience harassment, and what may result from an investigation. It is disseminated to all employees-and, if necessary, translated into commonly used languages.
  2. Institute a formal complaint procedure: the policy must include the names and phone numbers of people to whom an employee may complain. We recommend the business owner assign at least two other people in addition to him/herself for this role to avoid any perception of bias. Some organizations institute both formal and informal procedures to enable those who just want the behaviors to stop to complain without instigating an investigation.
  3. Communicate disapproval of harassment: train all staff and encourage managers to model appropriate behavior to ensure they understand you intend a harassment-free workplace.
  4. Respond swiftly and decisively: the company must respond as soon as a complaint is made. Delays send mixed messages, provide opportunities for further harassment or retaliation, and weaken a company's proactive defense.

When employees follow complaint procedures and the company responds by ensuring the behavior stops, lawsuits are nipped in the bud, teamwork continues unimpeded, and employees and customers feel confident in a respectful workplace.

The loss of key employees because of their behavior or the behavior of others toward them and the lost productivity in a team experiencing harassment cost businesses far more than monies lost in a lawsuit. An ounce of prevention early in the process may be all it takes.

Illysa Izenberg is Senior Associate of the Diversity Training Group, Inc., which designs and implements diversity and harassment-prevention training initiatives, and provides comprehensive support to promote more inclusive work environments that value diversity. Additionally, Ms. Izenberg conducts assessments to enable companies to understand if their organizational cultures are experienced differently by different groups. She can be reached at 301.602.6414. The main office of DTG can be reached at 703.478.9191.

 

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