Checklist for Preventing Harassment

-Without harassment and discrimination policies, you''ll be virtually defenseless in the face of a harassment complaint and risking potentially crippling liability.
Excerpted from New Jersey Employment Law Letter written by the law firm of Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch LLP

By now, all employers, regardless of size, should have policies prohibiting discrimination and workplace harassment and establishing effective complaint procedures. It''s no excuse if you have a small, close-knit company or a start-up that hasn''t gotten around to formalizing those policies in writing. Those policies are a must -- even if you have no other written employment policies. Without them, you''ll be virtually defenseless in the face of a harassment complaint and risking potentially crippling liability.

Happily, the vast majority of employers have gotten the message and instituted equal employment opportunity (EEO) and harassment policies - in many cases, long-standing policies.

Court decisions, however, together with our experience that too many employers have been lax in reinforcing their policies (after an initial flurry of activity in communicating their policies and conducting training years ago), tells us that it''s time to revisit the issue.

Be proactive. Review the checklist below to see whether your company is positioned to prevent workplace harassment and defend against any complaints that may come your way.

What you should do

- Review your policy, and, if necessary, update it. If your policy addresses only sexual harassment, expand it to prohibit harassment based on the other protected classifications - i.e., race, religion, age, national origin, and disability. Hostile work environment claims are no longer limited to gender, and other kinds of harassment claims present the same risk of liability to your company.

- Review your complaint procedure to ensure that it provides alternate avenues for reporting workplace harassment claims. Make sure that you tell employees of their obligation to report complaints and avail themselves of the complaint procedure in place to remedy workplace harassment. If your company has a code of business conduct and/or a hot line for reporting violations, make sure that they encompass your EEO and harassment policies and complaints for reporting violations.

- Review your methods of communicating your policy and complaint procedure to employees. If you have an employee handbook and/or a personnel policies manual, they should include your EEO and harassment policies. Redistribute your policies periodically (such as annually) to all employees, and have them sign an acknowledgement that they''ve received the policies each time. Post your policies at all work sites and on your intranet if you have one. Include the policies in new employee orientation materials.

- Review the training programs you have in place for employees, especially supervisors and managers. It isn''t enough to conduct one-time training. If you haven''t conducted training since you established your policy, you need to do it again and again. If you have the resources, we recommend retraining every two years. Here again, it''s wise to include training as part of your new employee orientation so that employees who join your company after training has taken place are covered. Keep a record of employees who attend each training session. Schedule makeup sessions for those who can''t attend.

- Make sure that your supervisors and managers understand that they have an obligation to take action to remedy workplace harassment, even in the absence of a "formal" complaint. Once they''re on notice of a potential problem, whether by simply observing prohibited conduct or through a casual mention of it by employees, they need to act.

- Review your procedures for investigating workplace harassment claims and the basis for imposing disciplinary action, especially a discharge. Just as supervisors and managers shouldn''t dismiss any complaint ("formal" or not) without an investigation, they also shouldn''t assume that every complaint has merit. It''s important that your procedures provide for a fair and thorough investigation that respects the rights of both the alleged victim and the accused party. We recommend requiring that investigations be conducted by those who have the expertise and/or training on how to conduct investigations (typically human resources and/or legal personnel). If you don''t have in-house expertise, get outside help.

- Maintain good records of any investigations of workplace harassment complaints. They can be invaluable in establishing a defense if an agency complaint or a lawsuit is filed. Assume that your records will be subject to being turned over for the other party to inspect. They should be factual in content and shouldn''t contain any inappropriate characterizations or opinions of either the alleged victim or the alleged harasser.

If you''re satisfied that your company has taken appropriate action to prevent workplace harassment and defend against complaints, we applaud you. If, however, you need to shore up your policy and procedures, take action now. You''ll be glad you did.

Copyright 2003 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC. This article contributed by *New Jersey Employment Law Letter*. Read more about the print newsletter and its editors at

This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general information purposes only. Remember to check your state''s laws for more restrictive rules and regulations. For more information on state-specific employment updates written by attorneys in your state, go to:

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