With all the recent attention devoted to instances of sexual harassment in Hollywood, Washington and elsewhere, and the corresponding #metoo movement, employers are rightfully concerned about workplace harassment and its potential liability. A single claim can have major repercussions for an employer, and even in a best-case scenario will consume large amounts of time and expense in investigating and mitigating the claim. The best course of action is to prevent claims from happening at all.
First, understand that although sexual harassment is front and center in the headlines, it’s only one of several types of workplace harassment. Any type of malicious or exploitative behavior that alienates or damages an employee to the point of affecting working conditions constitutes harassment. Harassment may be based on age, race, gender or religion, or may take the form of a sustained campaign of general bullying directed at one employee by another. An employer might even be held liable for harassment that takes place outside the workplace at company-sponsored events. For all these reasons, it is one of the most difficult risk exposures for an employer to control.
An isolated action by a single employee is not likely to result in legal action against the company. A claimant must demonstrate a repeated pattern of action that did not cease after appropriate actions were taken by the employee. A claim of a hostile work environment typically succeeds only if the claimant made his or her employer aware of the situation and the employer failed to take appropriate corrective steps. However, those realities will not stop expensive litigation from being brought. It’s important for companies to have a strategy to head off harassment in their corporate culture.
Courts generally agree that both handbooks and management are representative of a company and its culture. For those reasons, it’s important to have trustworthy, well-trained individuals in positions of authority and a handbook with clear, unbiased policies. Additionally, background checks on potential new hires may help to shield companies from future exposures related to the employment of individuals with a history of negative workplace behavior.
Employees and managers alike should be trained on harassment, with signed documentation acknowledging the completed training and signifying a willingness to comply with company standards. Additionally, all workers should be made to understand that they can report harassment without fear of repercussion.
Employment Practices Liability (EPL) coverage can help to protect employers from harassment claims, and we’ll address that in a post in the near future. Also in a future post, investigating harassment claims in the workplace.
Questions about harassment claims or other employment practices? Contact Consolidated Insurance.