Anti-Harassment Policies

Anti-harassment policies are important for businesses

Implementing and enforcing anti-harassment policies in the workplace is the best way to avoid potential problems in the future. This article explains the best way to accomplish that. 

Harassment in the workplace is not something that businesses should take lightly,  it’s been an issue for years, is becoming more of one and that is a trend that is likely to continue. It’s critical to establish anti-harassment policies and guidelines to identify and prevent harassment. 

Harassment of any kind should have no place in your business (and you may be obligated to make sure it doesn’t under state anti-discrimination laws and  federal anti-discrimination laws) and it’s important to take some time identifying harassment in the workplace, what it looks like and what that means. Take steps to reduce harassment, put in place procedures to assist employees who may be facing harassment and deal with employees who may be harassing others. The easiest way to do this is with an anti-harassment policy, which can be incorporated into your company employee handbook. 

Harassment is commonly thought of as sexual harassment, but that’s far too narrow of a viewpoint when you’re starting to define harassment within your business. It could, and probably should, include any sort of harassment around race, color, religion, gender, sexual identity, gender identity, national origin, pregnancy and sexual harassment for starters. 

Why is it important to have an anti-harassment policy? For starters, as mentioned above, you may have to under state and federal laws, so that’s a pretty good reason to have one. But, just because it’s the law, that is far from the only, or even the main reason, to have an anti-harassment policy. It gives employees some standard of conduct to abide by, and sets the expectations so there’s no confusion that the business takes harassment seriously and it won’t be tolerated. It should also provide some peace of mind and build a level of trust with employees that the business respects them and has put thought into how to make sure they work in an environment that isn’t hostile or uncomfortable.

What steps should your business take to protect employees and the company from harassment situations? Here are some things to consider when getting an anti-harassment policy in place.

Define Harassment

A good starting point for harassment prevention in the workplace is to define what “harassment” is. Generally, it’s physical or verbal actions/conduct that shows hostility or aversion towards or denigrates an individual (or their family, friends or associates) because of race, religion, sex, gender, nationality, disability, age, etc. that is done to create an intimidating, offensive or hostile environment, has the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individuals work and otherwise impacts the individuals employment opportunities. 

Common types of harassment include slurs, stereotyping individuals, or threatening, intimidating or hostile acts. Do not overlook the fact that jokes, pranks and teasing towards individuals can easily be considered harassment. 

Keep in mind that all harassment doesn’t necessarily have to be an overt action or comment, there are subtle forms of harassment that can be just as damaging. For example an employee may display graphic material that’s hostile towards a race, religion, gender, etc. on a bulletin board in the common area or similar location in the office, or circulate information around the workplace. 

Sexual harassment isn’t something to be overlooked as you put together a definition of what constitutes harassment in your business, and is commonly something that is given special consideration. It’s unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature. 

A couple of important facts to keep in mind about harassment: 

  • Both women and men can be victims of harassment.
  • It’s possible to harass someone of the same sex.
  • Harassment doesn’t always occur at work, it could be at company events or between colleagues outside the workplace.
  • Harassment can occur between employees on the same level, supervisor against employee, peer to peer and third party against employee (think about a customer or vendor harassing an employee).
  • The person complaining about harassment doesn’t have to be the person the conduct was directed at, it can be someone who was affected by it or overhead it and was impacted by it.

Provide Anti-harassment Training. 

Being proactive can go a long way in preventing harassment situations. Employees may not be aware of what situations could be considered harassment, don’t know other employees personal situations or sensitivities. Providing some training and education on what would constitute harassment can clear up some uncertainty and avoid anti-harassment disputes. 

In terms of what’s considered harassment, that may be an evolving idea. It would be worthwhile to annually provide updated information or training in order to try and stay on top of any changes to laws or best practices. There may be situations where employees think something is a harmless prank or joke and don’t grasp the potential consequences of an action, so trying to keep them up to speed can help avoid some of that. 

Set Up A Complaint Procedure. 

An important step will be putting in place a procedure for anyone to follow and take advantage of should they be harassed. Employees should be encouraged to follow the procedure and report any instances of harassment. You’ll want to clearly communicate how a complaint procedure works and act on any complaint quickly - from the moment it’s reported. Claims will need to be investigated, and handled carefully as not to take any action or retaliation against an employee who reports harassment. 

Don’t get trapped making a snap judgment based on the reputations of the people involved, try to remain neutral and objectively investigate the situation. In small businesses this is often difficult, everyone usually knows each other well, each other's personalities and common behaviors. A common mistake that gets companies into trouble is assuming that the person filing the complaint is just being oversensitive; don’t do that. Remember that the solution to the problem can’t be that you let the employees work it out, these situations will require some sort of management involvement or human resources and/or legal involvement if your company has that option. The bottom line is that any harassment complaint filed should be taken seriously. 

As previously mentioned, people seem to have their own view of what is and isn’t harassment, so it’s important to educate and train your employees on what’s acceptable behavior in your company, don’t assume everyone will just be on the same page about what harassment is. 

So what is an example of workplace harassment? Here are a few: 

  • Making comments like “you’re a woman, this is a job for a man” could be taken as gender discrimination. 
  • Comments about someone’s physical appearance, jokes about how people look, dress or behave.
  • Posting offensive material in or around the office or even a cubicle that’s visible to others in the office.
  • Making comments, jokes or stereotypes about certain religious affiliations.
  • Emailing or messaging offensive materials.
  • Telling off-color jokes.
  • Inappropriate touching.
  • Comments, requests, and suggestions of a sexual nature towards co-workers.

Employees have usually been pushed pretty far by the time they file a harassment complaint, and are usually scared. Make sure they know they are being supported, and won’t be punished or reprimanded for filing a complaint. Employees have a right to raise concerns, and to do so without fear of retaliation. 


Have questions about anti-harassment policies, policies or procedures in general or want to discuss any legal or risk management questions? Contact us to schedule a free consultation. 

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