Ending workplace harassment is one of the key priorities for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), according to its 2013 – 2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan. In fact, the EEOC has stepped up the number of class actions it has initiated.

Ensure that your agency or business never has a hostile work environment – and avoid costly and devastating lawsuits – by establishing an anti-harassment policy and a formal complaint procedure.

Creating an Anti-Harassment Policy

The EEOC makes it clear that a nondiscrimination pledge is not sufficient for addressing sexual harassment. Instead, employers need to create a policy that directly targets sexual harassment in the workplace. While you are targeting this issue, it’s a good idea to examine other potential areas of harassment, including that which targets people according to their race or disability.

When crafting your policy, write clearly and avoid unnecessary legalese. Although simply quoting the EEOC’s regulations is an easier approach, doing so won’t provide the practical guidance your employees need. You will want to go beyond the regulations since sexual harassment isn’t exclusive to conduct of a sexual nature (which is suggested by the regulations); in fact, it includes hostility directed at employees because of their sex, even if there isn’t a sexual component.

Simply put, your anti-harassment policy should explain the EEOC regulations in clear terms, and it should expand upon them to give your employees all of the context and information they need to avoid harassing behaviors in the workplace.

Creating a Complaint Procedure

Having an anti-harassment policy in place is only the first step. You’ll need to define the path for filing a complaint in case your employees experience harassment in the workplace. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a complaint procedure must provide employees with an option other than contacting their supervisor for it to be effective.
So, at a minimum, you need to include a supervisory bypass for reporting issues. Even then, it’s better to provide multiple points of access that allow employees to begin a complaint process.

Be sure to create a complaint procedure that is user-friendly and include a strong nonretaliation section. Define who is protected by your anti-harassment policy, including complainants, witnesses and others who might participate in the investigatory process.
Another smart idea is to define prohibited retaliation, which may include not only tangible employment actions but also material changes to the terms and conditions of employment. Examples include changes to work assignments and providing someone with a bad reference. Your policies and procedures should make it clear that your workplace will not engage in nor tolerate retaliation of any kind.
Finally, be sure the procedure addresses corrective action, specifically referencing discipline. Include as an option “termination of the employment or other relationship” to include employees and to extend the policy to nonemployees as well.

Sexual and other harassment in the workplace is a complicated issue, but you can create policies and procedures that safeguard your employees – and your agency or company – should such harassment occur. If you have questions or concerns, please contact an experienced federal employment attorney.