Startups often tend to focus more on developing their services or products rather than focusing on internal policies. Entrepreneurs may think they don’t need formal policies such as those that address harassment, but companies of any size can benefit from establishing a culture of respect to protect employees and assets now and in the future.
Having a specific anti-harassment policy can help. “The law recognizes that if you take steps to prevent sexual harassment and try to stop when it happens, that reduces the risk of lawsuit or damages to the organization,” says Kate Bischoff of tHRive Law & Consulting. “Not having a policy increases the risk.”
Here’s what you need to know to create an anti-harassment policy for your small business.
Different states and municipalities have varying definitions of and laws on harassment, so it’s important to fully understand your responsibilities as an employer, Bischoff says. Some of the things you need to know may include how and how often you need to inform or train employees about harassment and what your responsibilities are when it comes to reporting.
One common misconception is that only men harass, Bischoff says, so your policy should be written with gender-neutral language and some simple but clear definitions of what harassment is. It can be helpful to review the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s language on sexual harassment. Your policy may include explicit prohibitions against inappropriate jokes, epithets, unwanted touching and so on.
Your organization’s culture will influence the kind of policy you have, Bischoff says. A policy that matches your organizational culture will help support that culture while also showing that the company takes harassment seriously. Taking a template from a website could put you at risk because it could include language that describes things that don’t exist at your company, such as an HR department or a procedure you haven’t established.
A strict, rule-based culture may shape an anti-harassment policy that provides a lot of examples for employees about what is or is not harassment and how it should be reported. A nonhierarchical company or one with a more casual culture will need a policy that reflects that as well, Bischoff says.
Employees need to know how, when and to whom to report an incident. Make it clear what the complaint procedure is and what you want employees to do, Bischoff says. “I recommend employees talk to any manager — not just their own, not just HR, and then that manager has an obligation to do something about it.”
No matter the procedure you establish, Bischoff says it’s important to avoid the “old-school” advice of encouraging the victim to tell the harasser to stop. “Recognize it might be hard for the target to go to the person and say ‘stop doing that,’ ” Bischoff says. “They need to get out of the situation and should feel comfortable telling a manager about the conduct, but aren’t required to say ‘no, that’s unwelcome.’ ”
Employees should be informed early and often about your anti-harassment policy, Bischoff says. Include it in your employee handbook and walk new employees through it at onboarding, she says, but also review it on a yearly basis and whenever the policy changes. “Right now is a good time to talk about it because it’s in the news,” she says.
Formalized training and frequent mentions of the policy help reduce the company’s liability if harassment occurs, Bischoff says. “These days it’s not just the legal risk that goes along with harassment,” she says. “There’s a public relations and customer risk for not addressing it in the workplace. Owners need to be cognizant of preventing it.”
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