The EEOC defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” To be actionable at law, the harassment needs to be aimed at these protected categories.
However, as an employer, you must be alert to all forms of harassment taking place at your company, regardless of the harasser’s motivation. A workplace bully creates a toxic environment that is detrimental to other employees, company morale and overall productivity. One of your responsibilities as an owner/manager is to ensure that you are providing a healthy work environment free from harassment and intimidation and to address such instances as they arise.
The EEOC describes example of offensive conduct offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.” Be particularly alert to emails or text messages with offensive pictures or jokes and locker room talk.
Here are some tips to help employers be proactive in discouraging this type of bullying:
- Have a clear and unambiguous statement in your employee handbook that makes this type of behavior unacceptable and subject to immediate termination at the employer’s sole discretion.
- Conduct annual workplace trainings/discussions that define the unacceptable behavior by using fact patterns and vignettes to describe same to prompt discussions and awareness.
- Have a clearly defined complaint mechanism for an employee to raise concerns about such behavior in the workplace and seek help from their manager.
- Have an internal standard operating procedure on how to handle a complaint of workplace bullying being raised with the company.
- Take every such complaint seriously as an employee who feels that they are not being protected by the company is likely to escalate the matter.