Maintaining a safe, healthy work environment in the current climate requires much more than reminding employees to observe the Golden Rule. In fact, there are legal and ethical reasons for every organization to be committed to the prevention and elimination of all forms of harassment.
The Archdiocese of Boston is one of many organizations taking proactive steps to ensure staff and management are aware of what constitutes harassment and how to appropriately respond if encountered, experienced, or observed in the workplace. For this reason, Attorney Kimberly. Y. Jones of Athena Legal Strategies Group in Boston developed an engaging training program to educate and equip supervisors to identify, address, and resolve harassment. “People want a deeper understanding of what it is and to make sure they will be prepared to appropriately deal with it,” said Ms. Jones, an MCAD Certified Trainer in Harassment Prevention.
Harassment Is Not Just Sexual
Although sexual harassment may be the most familiar type, anti-harassment laws also prohibit unwelcome or unsolicited written or verbal comments or conduct based on a person’s age, gender, national origin, religion, race, color, pregnancy, veteran status, disability, ancestry, genetic information, sexual orientation, and gender expression. “There is a distinction between what is unlawful and what is inappropriate,” explained Ms. Jones. An organization’s policy can offer broader protections than the law provides. As Ms. Jones points out, the law is the ceiling, not the floor.
Forge a Partnership with Human Resources
Supervisors are on the front line, addressing and resolving matters that may involve harassing language or conduct. Ms. Jones encourages supervisors to forge a partnership with their Human Resources Department – when in doubt, seek the advise of HR. Not only can HR help to clarify current law and diocesan or company policies, but they can help supervisors develop the appropriate response.
Ms. Jones noted that a prudent supervisor will always inform the Human Resources department of a situation that may potentially involve harassing conduct to seek guidance and ask for input, even if there is no anticipated need for intervention by the HR staff. Supervisors and managers should not be acting independently, but rather in concert with Human Resources. HR will likely have a more comprehensive overview of your organization and can serve as a partner to navigate an appropriate response to a sensitive situation.
Compliment, or Harassment?
Many ask, “What is the distinction between a compliment and harassment?” Ms. Jones answered, “It comes down to whether it is welcome or unwelcome.” In other words, it is all about one’s perception, and how the comment is received. “It crosses the line and potentially becomes harassment,” she noted, “when the person is offended, it is severe and pervasive, and a reasonable person in that person’s shoes would be offended.”
Supervisors and managers have the responsibility and legal obligation to promptly identify, respond to and address harassing conduct they observe or that is reported to them. Through awareness, education, and training, supervisors can effectively address and resolve harassment in the workplace.
Prevention can take many forms. For example, supervisors should maintain open communication and conversations with their team and staff to talk about these issues. Also, staff should know and be provided with a copy of your organization’s policy, either a hard copy or electronically.
Responding to Harassment
How should a supervisor respond when he or she thinks an employee is being harassed by another employee or vendor? According to Ms. Jones, it depends on many factors, including the particular circumstances, the severity and pervasiveness of the harassing conduct, and the relationship of the people involved. “The goal is to identify and resolve the issue and for the harassing conduct to cease immediately.”
Generally, follow the guidelines spelled out in the anti-harassment policy of the parish, diocese, school, or organization. As noted earlier, HR can be helpful in determining the appropriate response. Each response will be dictated by the particular circumstances involved; however, one remedy is a direct conversation with the person engaging in the harassing conduct, facilitated by a supervisor or HR representative. Other possible options include counseling, requiring the offender to attend additional training, issuing a verbal or written warning, or termination, if deemed appropriate.
Most situations can be resolved internally, Ms. Jones noted. Often conversations to explore the various options regarding a potential response to the situation can be shared with the co-worker who is the subject of the harassing conduct. Ignoring harassment is not an option! In addition to the potential damage to the reputation of the parish, Diocese or organization, or the economic impact of a harassment complaint, hiding one’s head in the sand can also have a negative impact on employee morale. People need to know they are protected and working in a safe environment. There is an erosion of trust if supervisors do not respond promptly and appropriately to harassment complaints.
And if “doing the right thing” is not enough of an incentive, consider liability. Ms. Jones emphasizes that supervisors can, and have been, held personally liable for failing to act or intervene in some circumstances. “Personal assets are not beyond reach and, as a result your home, car, boat, and college fund may be potentially at risk,” Ms. Jones noted.
But not to worry. Supervisors and managers are better prepared to respond to and prevent harassment if they:
- Know and understand the diocesan/parish or organizational anti-harassment policy
- Maintain open communications and an open door policy with their employees
- Stay alert and prepared to take appropriate steps to identify, prevent and stop harassment.
Contact Human Resources for guidance before taking action.