The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) receives an average of more than 25,000 workplace harassment complaints per year. Monetary settlements associated with harassment complaints average over $120 million per year, but these costs only tell part of the story. For every claim filed, three incidents go unreported, leading to a demoralized workforce, lost productivity, and workplaces where some employees feel disrespected (or worse).
So, why would a small business owner consider adding harassment training to your HR policies and procedures? Prevention is the primary reason, but building a strong culture and employee engagement follow close behind. Depending on the location of your business, training may also be required of some or all of your employees.
Maybe you have a small company with a tight-knit group of co-workers. Or maybe you’re well established, you know your team, and you all get along. Your company doesn’t need harassment training. Right?
Probably not. The truth about harassment is that employers don’t hear about most incidents. Maybe employees are uncomfortable or embarrassed, or maybe they fear retaliation. For whatever reason, it’s entirely possible that you have an employee with a legitimate complaint that you can’t address because you simply don’t know about it.
Of course, just because a complaint isn’t filed formally doesn’t mean that other people aren’t aware of it. You may never directly hear that one of your employees (or one of your applicants) feels that they were treated unfairly by your company, but they will talk about it to their friends and colleagues. Unresolved concerns have been documented to lead to a drop in productivity because uncomfortable employees often underperform. Rumors can even become a drag on recruiting and marketing. Clients and customers may hear about these situations and factor them into business decisions. Workplace harassment can have a strong negative impact on your business without you or the EEOC ever getting involved.
Federal law defines harassment as a form of discrimination when it’s based on characteristics such as race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Not every state acknowledges the idea of discrimination based on these traits, but when state laws are at odds with federal law, federal law prevails.
The first step in preventing workplace harassment is to have a solid policy against it. At a minimum, your policy should include:
Your anti-harassment policy should be written broadly so that it applies to all aspects of your business, from recruiting to client management. Also, you should review the policy periodically as laws and industry best practices change. The EEOC is a great resource on how to develop an anti-harassment policy.
The policy you develop should be added to your employee handbook (if you have one), or you can sign it separately and keep it with your personnel files. Note that using HR software may help you keep all your files organized while making sure your documents are up to date.
After you or your HR manager have created an anti-harassment policy, you will need to share it with your employees. In addition to the policy rollout, it’s a good idea to update training on an annual basis in order to keep up with any changes in state and federal law. There are two ways to do this: using an internal trainer or an outside consultant. There are advantages and disadvantages to both options.
When you use an internal resource to provide training, you’ll save money and you’ll have the advantage of ongoing support for any questions that come up. An internal resource should have deep knowledge about your company as well as any issues that have come up in the past. This historical understanding can help them provide more targeted and effective training. On the other hand, using an internal resource to develop and deliver training takes that resource away from other necessary tasks, and they may not provide the same polished and professional experience as a professional trainer.
Using an outside trainer does come with a price tag, but they have the advantage of extensive training experience, which can help them deliver an effective and targeted presentation. And while an outside trainer won’t know your company as deeply as an internal resource, they are likely a subject matter expert and may be able to provide insights into the law (including upcoming changes).
There are also trainings for bystander intervention that an HR expert can offer. Sometimes having someone come in from outside the company can also help provide some distance and perspective on the situation.
Harassment is a headache for any company of any size. It threatens the ability of your team to work effectively — not to mention the risk of a potential lawsuit. Employees who are uncomfortable are less productive and, ultimately, less happy. This greatly increases the risk of turnover, which can pose a real danger to a small company. The best way to deal with the potential of harassment is prevention: establish a clear policy as part of your employee handbook, openly talk about it with your team as well as any issues, and train your employees on how to avoid them.