Don't Harass Me!

How many times has an employee come to you to say they feel like their supervisor is “harassing” them?  For most business managers, the term “harassment” conjures up visions of discrimination lawsuits. Frequently, though, what an employee refers to as harassment is simply a disagreement with the supervisor that has nothing to do with any anti-discrimination laws.  This doesn’t mean that the situation doesn’t need to be addressed.  It simply means that we as business managers must be able to hone in on the distinction in order to best analyze how to fix the conflict.

Harassment & Discrimination

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which enforces such non-discrimination laws as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, says:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Discrimination, in simplest terms, is treating members of one group differently than another.

Examples of discrimination and/or harassment that rises to a level that could violate anti-discrimination laws include:

  • a supervisor singling out those over age 40 for tasks that are not as rewarding as those assigned to younger employees;
  • a supervisor making fun of the way a disabled employee talks or walks;
  • a supervisor making racial slurs or jokes; or
  • a supervisor asking a female employee to provide sexual favors in order to receive a promotion

This is a very short list of conduct that rises to the level of being discriminatory and/or harassing. As you can see, though, harassment and discrimination reach far beyond what one thinks of as the typical sexual harassment or racial discrimination. Complaints of this type of conduct must be investigated immediately in order to resolve the problem as quickly as possible. Depending on the employer’s findings, discipline could include range from a verbal warning and a requirement to attend sensitivity training to termination.

It’s all about me!

Frequently, an employee will claim they are being “harassed” but in fact the supervisor isn’t doing anything that is harassing or discriminatory. This could range from poor communication to truly showing favoritism to a “buddy” or to bullying an employee for reasons that aren’t protected by law.  While all of these situations need to be investigated and dealt with properly, they aren’t necessarily going to trigger an EEO lawsuit.  The EEOC specifically states: “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.”

Sometimes, employees will claim they are being harassed when a supervisor has a legitimate complaint about their job performance and have disciplined them. While the complaint has to be investigated, the company may find no merit to the claim and would still hold the employee accountable for their job performance. The company does have to finesse how they address this issue with the complaining employee; investigating the complaint and yet still letting the employee know that there is a certain level of performance that they are expected to achieve.

Investigation & Communication

The key to any employee complaint is to take it seriously, investigate promptly (who, what, when, where, how and are there any witnesses), and communicate with the employee the results of your findings.

Further, it’s important that we train our supervisors not only on what is considered harassing and discriminatory behavior, but also on behaviors that, while not rising to the level of being illegal, are actions that the company finds inappropriate and unacceptable.  Additionally, it’s important to teach supervisors how to effectively communicate on a regular basis with employees and also on how to properly administer discipline.

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