A legally effective anti-harassment policy is an absolute requirement for any employee handbook. There is not a single reason to not have a policy that effectively establishes the organization’s prohibition against harassment and related retaliation. But there are millions of reasons to make sure that your handbook includes such a policy and that the workplace is set to manage a complaint of harassment should it receive one.
To make sure your employee handbook includes a legally effective anti-harassment policy, a great place to start is with the EEOC itself. In 2005, the EEOC issued the findings of a limited review of the anti-harassment programs in 43 federal agencies and one component’s 64 sub-agencies. The findings that were published included an excellent overview of the purposes of an anti-harassment program and the legal requirements of an effective policy. The EEOC’s report is as relevant and accurate today for private-sector employers as it was three years ago for federal-agency employers.
According to the EEOC, an anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure should contain, at a minimum:
- A clear explanation of prohibited conduct;
- Assurance that complainants or witnesses will not be subject to reprisal;
- A clearly described complaint process that provides alternative avenues for complainants;
- Assurance that the employer will protect the confidentiality of the reporting employee to the extent possible;
- A prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation process; and
- Assurance that the employer will take immediate and appropriate remedial action if it determines that harassment has occurred.
Each of these elements are essential if you want your policy to be effective against a claim of harassment by an employee. Employers cannot take advantage of an effective policy, though, without additional workplace safeguards. The most important of these safeguards is periodic training.
Managers and supervisors should receive annual training to ensure that they understand their responsibilities under the company’s anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure. Training should review:
- The types of conduct that violate the policy;
- The seriousness of the policy;
- Their responsibilities when they learn of a claim of harassment; and
- The prohibition against retaliation.
Employees should also receive periodic training. After all, what good is a complaint mechanism with which employees are unfamiliar. One important benefit of training employees on the organization’s anti-harassment policy is the ability to communicate that harassment is not limited to sexual conduct alone. Instead, an anti-harassment policy should cover all forms of harassment, including race, color, gender (both sexual and non-sexual), age, national origin, disability, and religion. Many employers’ harassment policies are limited to sexual harassment, which is insufficient under the law.