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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Creating alternate avenues for employees to complain key to harassment prevention

In a story that reads more like an un-filmed script from The Office instead of an actual workplace, the EEOC announced that it has settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against an Atlanta-area cargo and freight transportation company. The female manager on whose behalf the EEOC filed suit alleged that the company’s owner and CEO subjected her to the following:

The harassment included a barrage of lewd sexual comments, gestures, and e-mails about the employee’s breasts, many of which were sent to other employees in the office. The CEO also kept a pair of rubber breasts on his desk along with a jar of Vaseline, visible to all employees and customers who visited the company facility.

As is often the case when an allegation of harassment involves a senior executive at a company, she claimed that management ignored her complaints.

This story illustrates two important and related points about an effective harassment-prevention program:

  1. A effective anti-harassment policy must provide multiple avenues for an aggrieved employee to complain. Otherwise, an employee will feel powerless if the person to whom a policy directs her to complain also happens to be the alleged harasser. At a minimum, a policy should state that an employee can complain to HR, or to any supervisor, manager, or executive. In an ideal world, a company should also provide a telephone hotline and email account into which an employee can send complaint.

  2. No amount of avenues to complain will make any difference if a company has a culture of covering up complaints levied against members of senior management. A company must take all harassment complaints seriously. It cannot ignore a complaint just because the alleged harasser also happens to be the company’s CEO.

Ensuring that your harassment-prevention program incorporates these two ideas will position your organization to deter and investigate all levels of harassment in your workplace, even that which starts at the very top.