Anti-Harassment Policy: Ultimate Guide For HR Staff

May 17, 2023

anti-harassment policy ultimate guide for hr staff

A survey by Gallup identified violence and harassment at work as a widespread global phenomenon. It found that 23% of employed people have suffered at least one incident of violence or harassment at work during their career.

Workplace harassment arises in many forms, including bullying, degradation, humiliation and intimidation. It also covers undesirable non-verbal, verbal and physical conduct against a person or group.

Harassment at work can have a negative impact on talent acquisition and company reputation, so it is crucial to implement a strategy against it.

Read on to learn why an anti-harassment policy is essential and what practical steps you can take to implement an effective anti-harassment framework in your organization.

What is an anti-harassment policy?

All employees must be treated with dignity and respect. They should also treat others with dignity and respect.

Anti-harassment policies are in place to address and prevent situations that damage the dignity of your employees.

Your policy should cover all types of harassment relating to protected classes, including race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.

It should cover conduct in and outside the workplace, such as business functions, trips or work-social functions. It should cover harassment by other staff, customers, suppliers and visitors to the business premises.

The policy should outline your organization's procedure for reporting incidents of harassment and how you will prohibit retaliation for harassment complaints.

You can add it to the employee handbook or issue it as an individual policy document. However you choose to publish it, you should ensure it is readily available and easy to access.

Why is an anti-harassment policy important?

Implementing an effective anti-harassment policy is the first step to preventing harassment from occurring in the workplace.

It offers reassurance that your organization does not tolerate discriminatory conduct or harassment.

Working in accordance with your anti-harassment policy demonstrates that you take the well-being and safety of staff seriously. It also shows you are committed to ensuring a respectful and inclusive working environment.

Committing to work in line with a formal anti-harassment policy allows organizations to address problems early.

This helps to prevent escalation, protecting the organization against potentially costly legal liability. On average, harassment lawsuits settle for around $50,000.

Developing an effective anti-harassment policy

anti-harassment policy ultimate guide for hr staff

Developing a comprehensive anti-harassment policy is critical to minimizing harassment in the workplace. You must outline the policy's purpose, who it applies to and the type of conduct the organization will not tolerate.

Here are the main points to consider when developing an anti-harassment policy for your organization.

1. Define harassment

Defining what constitutes harassment in the workplace is vital, including the different forms of harassment.

You should give examples of the type of behavior that is not acceptable. You should also advise employees that the examples are not exhaustive.

Some examples of harassment in the workplace include:

  • Teasing or making derogatory comments about a person's beliefs, religion or heritage

  • Making unwanted sexual advances or threats

  • Asking a colleague questions of an intimate nature

  • Inappropriate or unwanted physical contact or touching

  • Making physical threats

  • Assault

  • Damage to property

  • Offensive gestures or sounds toward another person

  • Circulating inappropriate material such as photos, videos or social media content

  • Spreading malicious rumors

2. Outline the consequences

Being clear about the potential consequences of harassment at work is vital. Within the policy, you should provide a clear overview outlining these consequences.

This section should state that the nature of the consequences will be linked to the severity of the misconduct.

As a minimum, proven incidents of harassment at work should lead to a verbal or written warning, alongside guidance on how to avoid receiving similar reprimands in the future.

In more severe cases, employers might consider reassigning a staff member to a different job role, additional training, suspension from duties or termination of the employment contract.

3. Develop a reporting process

Your policy must clearly outline the steps employees should take if they witness questionable conduct or find themselves victims of harassment at work.

You should reiterate that the organization views all harassment complaints seriously and that employees reporting such incidents will be treated respectfully.

Employees should promptly report the incident to their supervisor as a starting point.

However, this will not be possible in some situations, for example, if the supervisor is unavailable or directly involved in the incident.

In such cases, the organization must signpost employees to the next person in the chain of command, often their department manager or someone from the HR team.

4. Investigate and respond to complaints

You must outline exactly how complaints of harassment will be investigated and responded to.

Organizations should commit to processing all complaints of harassment promptly, thoroughly and objectively.

Depending on the organization's size, it may be possible to allocate an investigating manager outside of the complainant's department to investigate the details of the incident. In some organizations, this responsibility falls to the HR department.

Organizations must collect all relevant information regarding the incident, ensuring this is appropriately documented and backed up with evidence.

Once the investigating manager has gathered all the information, they will prepare a report summarising their findings and recommending remedial action.

5. Require regular training

The policy must include a clause that requires employees and management to participate regularly in training on what constitutes harassment.

In most US states, sexual harassment training is required by law. Before writing this section, you must check the law mandates on workplace harassment that apply to your state.

For example, in California, all employers with more than five staff members must provide training to all employees on sexual harassment and the prevention of abusive conduct.

Employers must provide one hour of training every two years for non-supervisory employees. For supervisors, two hours of training must be provided every two years.

The training must offer practical examples of harassment pertaining to sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity.

6. Ensure confidentiality

Harassment is a sensitive topic. In many cases, the complainant will want to keep the details of the incident confidential. However, confidentiality is also important from the respondent's viewpoint.

Occasionally, the respondent may not have acted intentionally and will be keen to correct their behavior. In other cases, the complainant's accusation might be malicious or designed to impact the respondent's reputation negatively.

Organizations are duty-bound to protect the reputation of all employees, whether they are the complainant or respondent in the harassment claim. As well as the risk to reputation, leaked information can harm the investigation.

For this reason, the organization must handle all harassment complaints discreetly. The details of the incident and investigation should only be shared on a need-to-know basis. The organization must only share the complainant's name with their express permission.

All parties involved in the complaint (including the complainant) should be told not to discuss the circumstances with anybody else within the organization.

Ensuring that the investigation remains confidential will help maintain the employee's trust and protect the integrity of the process. Including a confidentiality clause is essential. This should outline the organization's expectations and the possible consequences of breaking confidentiality.

7. Include a non-retaliation clause

Your policy should also offer protection to employees against retaliation. This means that anybody reporting misconduct or cooperating in an investigation must not be negatively impacted, directly or indirectly.

This means that they should not be made to feel intimidated at any point, nor should they be punished by changes to their working conditions. Your policy should clearly state that retaliation is a form of harassment itself and the organization will not tolerate it.

Example: The company prohibits retaliation against employees who speak up about harassment or cooperate in a harassment investigation. Employees will not be discharged from their duties or discriminated against in any other way because they have filed a complaint under the Anti-Harassment policy. Any employee found to have retaliated against an employee engaged in an Anti-Harassment investigation is subject to disciplinary action.

Tips for implementing and enforcing the anti-harassment policy

anti-harassment policy ultimate guide for hr staff

Writing an anti-harassment policy is the first stage to preventing harassment in the workplace.

However, organizations must also consider how they will implement and enforce the principles of the policy.

Here are some tips on successfully introducing an anti-harassment policy to your organization.

1. Make sure all employees understand the policy

A well-written policy ensures all employees understand what the organization expects from them.

Check you have included all relevant information, including specific definitions of what might be considered harassment in the workplace. You should also name and give examples of all of the protected classes.

Include details of exactly when the policy applies. For example, if your organization regularly runs social functions, it should be clear that employees are still expected to adhere to the anti-harassment policy during those events.

Outline the consequences of not adhering to the policy and include a structured timeline of how the organization will manage harassment complaints.

Include the name and contact details of the person who wrote the policy. Employees can direct any questions they have about the policy to them.

2. Respond to complaints promptly

Offering a fast and thorough response to harassment complaints is vital. Regardless of the type of harassment and the alleged perpetrator, organizations must strive to deal with complaints promptly.

How this will look depends on the specific circumstances of the incident. Although employers are required to stop any ongoing bullying and harassment, they are not obliged to immediately believe allegations of harassment or terminate the contract of the alleged harasser.

Upon receiving an allegation of harassment, employers must commit to listening carefully to the details of the complaint. This allows them to gather the key facts and gain the complainant's trust.

A full investigation will be required, but it may be necessary to take immediate action, such as changing work assignments, departments, working hours or schedules to prevent the alleged harasser from working with the complainant while the investigation is taking place.

When the allegations are more serious, managers might consider suspending the alleged harasser from duty or putting the complainant on an appropriate form of leave.

3. Provide support to employees

Harassment can cause many issues, including low morale, stress and anxiety. In some cases, it can lead to higher levels of absenteeism. Helping employees feel safe and supported is an important aspect of the anti-harassment policy.

Ask them what support they feel they might benefit from. This might include regular one-to-one meetings with a trusted contact person or more formal support.

Whatever support they seek, caring for employees who experience harassment is essential to the employment relationship. Strategies include setting up counseling, offering support from the occupational health team or arranging additional training.

4. Encourage employees to speak up and intervene

Many people find it difficult to report harassment in the workplace. Even if they directly witness harassment, they may be fearful of retaliation.

Giving employees the confidence to speak up when they witness harassment is vital. Providing anonymity will help employees to feel safe when reporting such incidents.

One option is to provide a dedicated reporting channel for speaking up. This should be internal to the organization, either through the HR department or to a dedicated management team member.

That said, some employees prefer to speak to somebody face-to-face regarding their concerns, so you should also facilitate this option.

Remember to offer feedback to employees who speak up. Although it might not be possible to provide full details of the investigation, reassuring them that you have listened to their concerns and are taking steps to resolve them is still important.

5. Monitor and evaluate the policy

As with any organizational policy, you must regularly review and revise the anti-harassment policy to reflect changes in employment law and organizational practices.

You should also consider the effectiveness of the policy from an employee's point of view.

You might consider asking a specific question as part of the annual employee satisfaction survey or asking people who have used the policy to complete a short questionnaire on its effectiveness.

Final thoughts

All employers must take allegations of harassment seriously. Your anti-harassment policy should provide guidelines on how allegations of harassment within the organization will be addressed consistently and impartially.

The anti-harassment policy should be published in a centralized and easy-to-access location. You should ensure all existing employees and new joiners are aware of it at the earliest opportunity.

During onboarding, you should refer to the policy and explain the steps employees must take if they are subject to or witness harassment at work.

Once your policy is well-established, it is vital that it remains under regular review. Check the policy periodically to ensure it stays in line with employment law.