• February/March 2019

Workplace Harassment: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Harassment, like a natural disaster, can wreak havoc on any organization regardless of its size or industry. The 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study™ found that the percentage of employees reporting harassment at organizations with more than 1,000 employees was the same as those with less than 100 employees – 32 percent. The study also confirmed that workplace harassment is committed not only by supervisors and co-workers, but by customers as well. Recent media coverage has cast a spotlight on workplace harassment; however, this isn't a new issue and will likely be an ongoing problem.

Workplace Harassment Today

Filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is much easier today than in prior years. Victims of workplace harassment can go online and submit a report. Additionally, websites such as Glassdoor and Indeed provide a place for people to make anonymous complaints.

As workplaces continually diversify, so do the different types of workplace harassment. We often hear about sexual harassment, but it happens less frequently than hostile work environment harassment. This occurs when speech or conduct is so severe and pervasive that it creates an intimidating or demeaning environment that negatively affects an employee's performance. Harassment can be based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age and disability. It is more difficult to prove hostile work environment cases than it is in quid pro quo situations like those highlighted by the #MeToo movement. Nevertheless, harassment awareness and employee empowerment are growing. Employers need to take a close look at their internal policies and response plans.

Mitigation and Response Plans

The 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study™ found on average, it costs between $75,000 and $125,000 to defend a company against harassment allegations. These figures do not include any fines or penalties that could also be levied. Harassment mitigation efforts can help protect employees and prevent claims against the organization. Strong internal policies and procedures should be implemented that foster a harassment-free work environment. Regular training also needs to be scheduled to educate employees on all aspects of workplace harassment. These efforts can help prevent issues and better position organizations from a defense standpoint.

If workplace harassment is reported, a thorough and objective investigation should be launched immediately. Confidentiality should be a top priority (although complete anonymity is not always possible). If the harassment allegation is found to have merit, discipline should be swift and appropriate for the misconduct committed.

Consider using employment practices liability insurance in conjunction with internal policies and procedures. This can be particularly helpful when allegations reach the EEOC or civil courts.

Culture Change

Harassment training has been used as a prevention tool for more than 30 years. Although this approach is needed, employers must do more. A culture change is needed within most organizations – starting with leadership. To begin, the EEOC suggests that organizations:

•   Assess the workplace for risk factors associated with harassment.

•   Develop strategies to minimize any identified risks.

•   Conduct climate surveys to assess the extent to which harassment is a problem.

Once organizations understand the role harassment plays in the workplace, they should then:

•   Adopt and maintain a comprehensive anti-harassment policy, and make updates as needed.

•   Frequently communicate the anti-harassment policy and offer a multi-faceted method to report harassment.

•   Retrain managers and supervisors, and hold them accountable for preventing and responding to workplace harassment.

•   Verify that sufficient resources are in place for prevention efforts and validate their effectiveness.

•   Review the investigation process and ensure an immediate response can take place when a complaint occurs.

•   Reinforce the credibility of leadership's commitment to creating a harassment-free workplace.

Seek Professional Guidance

Harassment allegations can arise in different ways: they can catch you off-guard like a tornado falling from the sky, or they can be like a hurricane lingering over the ocean, building up power before making landfall. Understand that business cultures can foster either of these atmospheres, but acknowledgement, preparation and planning can help your organization weather any type of storm. An integrated approach under professional guidance can provide a positive return on investment when compared to claim costs and potential brand damage. The right combination of policies, procedures, training and insurance can help protect your employees and your business as a whole.

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    Todd Flickema
    SilverStone Group
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    Andie Gordman
    SilverStone Group

Todd Flickema, MBA, AAI is Director of Professional Risk Services and Andie Gordman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CCP is a Senior HR Consultant for SilverStone Group.

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