How to Build a Comprehensive Anti-Harassment Policy

 anti-harassment policy

Workplace harassment comes in many forms. Harassment can be against gender or national origin, against the young or the old, it can be playing favourites, cruel humor, or stem from emotional instability.

What matters is your company's ability to protect employees from harassment and properly address harassment no matter what form it takes. This is why a comprehensive anti-harassment policy should be built into the very core of your workplace culture.

When looking at the Great Resignation of 2021-2022, 57% of those who resigned stated disrespect in the workplace as a leading cause.  This article will help you to build an anti-harassment policy that will identify and treat harassment at the root, protecting employees from mistreatment which will improve trust, employee morale, and employment longevity across the board.

The Importance of a Workplace Anti-Harassment Policy

An employee comes to you to report harassment. The symptoms are subtle but clear; cruel comments, imbalanced assignments, maybe even stolen lunches and chairs. Harassment can be both petty and dangerous. What do you do? What can you do? Your anti-harassment policy is the answer.

An anti-harassment policy is your first and best defense against the subtle disease that is workplace mistreatment. It closes the loopholes on mean-spirited coworkers, unfair managers, and behaviors that are otherwise difficult to discipline. By defining harassment and outlining consequences, you make it possible to protect your staff from mistreatment and your company culture from creeping toxicity. 

Elements of a Strong Anti-Harassment Policy

  • Define Harassing Behavior
  • Anonymity for Reporting Harassment and Witness Statements
  • Investigate Every Claim
  • Outline the Investigation Process
  • Define Disciplinary Action for Prohibited Conduct
  • Consistent Enforcement

What makes a good anti-harassment policy is covering all of your bases. The purpose of an anti-harassment policy is to close loopholes of mistreatment. When any pattern of mistreatment occurs, no matter how subtle, your policy should be able to protect the victim, investigate the perpetrator, and put the matter to a stop through pre-defined disciplinary actions.

Clearly and Completely Define Workplace Harassment

The first step is to clearly define workplace harassment and harassing behavior. Definitions are the best form of protection for something as subtle as a pattern of behaviors. Workplace harassment must be defined in ways that make it possible to identify ill intent and unfair treatment in ways that do not leave loopholes for harassers, yet also allow for reasonable workplace interactions where false claims cannot be used as harassment itself.

Make sure conduct covered by your anti-harassment policy hits all points, including behaviors toward employees, staff member, contractors, interns, and non employees.

All of the following are ways to define and identify unlawful workplace harassment in the many forms it takes.

  • Condescending or demeaning commentary
  • Workplace discrimination such as negative comments regarding a person's heritage, identity, traits, family, sexual orientation, gender identity
  • Unwanted touching or physical conduct
  • Cruel nicknames or demeaning manners of address
  • Unwanted sexual advances or behavior of a sexual nature
  • Requesting or offering sexual favors
  • Violation of personal property
  • Verbal or physical threats of assault or other such behavior
  • Intimidating hostile or offensive behaviors
  • Hostility beyond a single incident
  • Creating a hostile work environment
  • Offensive gestures, noises, or implications
  • Spreading malicious rumors or gossip
  • Sabotaging or unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance
  • Threatening an individual's employment without structured cause
  • Assigning work in a disadvantageous way
  • Singling someone out to do demeaning tasks unrelated to their job
  • Consistently ruling against someone without reason
  • Aggressive remarks in online channels
  • Online stalking of personal accounts
  • Demeaning digital notes or comments
  • Purposeful exclusion from critical workplace resources or conversations
  • Protect the Anonymity of Reports Completely

Anonymity is vital to creating an anti-harassment policy that makes a difference. If someone is being harassed, they must feel safe from retaliation when reporting harassment and the investigation process must protect everyone who participates. Otherwise, harassers will simply increase their negative behaviors if it becomes known that their victims are seeking help and/or that others are supporting them against the harasser.

Anonymity ensures that those being harassed file a formal complaint safely, that witnesses and persons involved can respond truthfully, and that investigations both catch perpetrators and avoid unnecessary damage in the process.

Define Your Investigation Process

Build a consistent approach to how you will deal with every harassment report. It is vital that every alleged harassment claim is investigated, considering both the delicacy of a harassment situation and the possibility of false claims. Getting the truth of the situation in how a person is consistently treated by a coworker or supervisor will allow you to understand the form of harassment occurring and build a plan to solve the problem through discipline, protection, and future prevention.

  • Take a full report
  • Check available records for harassment events
  • Collect witness statements
  • Intentional observation
  • Check for patterns of harassment

Likely, your policy will include protecting the reporter, checking all available records that might show the harassment as reported (ex: chat logs, task assignments, security footage, etc), and collecting anonymous witness statements.

Define and Publicise Disciplinary Action

Harassers are typically people who think they can get away with it. They often tell victims that reporting will make no difference because their comments or actions are "below the bar" for disciplinary action. Clear guidelines for disciplining harassment makes this untrue and provides protection for those targeted by harassment.

A clear and publicly defined disciplinary process for harassers can discourage harassment, ensure consistent enforcement, and build this protection into your company culture.

Corrective action for harassment should run on a scale of severity and repeat offenses including:

  • Written warnings
  • Mandatory Training
  • Probation
  • Reassignment
  • Suspension
  • Demotion
  • Employment Termination
  • Legal Remedies

Build a Plan for Future Prevention

The final step in a harassment case is to look for ways to prevent this type of harassment in the future. No anti-harassment policy or implementation is perfect, so each new case is also an opportunity to improve how you handle harassment issues in the future.

Consider how you might better publicise policies so that victims or witnesses report sooner - or would-be harassers know to avoid behaviors. Consider if there are resources you could offer to help prevent harassment situations like counseling, compassionate leave, or more managerial oversight.

Dealing with False Claims

What you do to help people being harassed is vital. But so is delicately approaching the possibility of false harassment claims. False claims can be as varied as true harassment. They might be filed in order to discredit or harass the target, or it might be the result of a difficult personal situation, or a very unfortunate misunderstanding.

Let's say a coworker who just lost a close relative has been bitingly mean to the reporter. They may require counseling, but might not actually be harassment. Or a manager consistently assigns someone difficult hours or outside-role tasks because they misunderstood the role, not because they are prejudiced. In these cases, it's important to have an investigation and solution process that accounts for difficult workplace interactions that are not always harassment - as well as discipline for blatantly false or malicious harassment reporting.

Consistency is Key

The most important thing about an anti-harassment policy is consistency. You must consistently investigate every report using the same thorough methods and open mind with every case.  If harassment is detected, you must consistently and fairly apply disciplinary action depending on the frequency or severity of the harassing actions.

The most toxic workplaces are those where harassers feel safe because they have identified a pattern of inconsistent enforcement. If they think they've found HR's 'blind spot' when it comes to harassment investigation or enforcement, true victimisation can occur. Consistent application of your anti-harassment policy is the best way to ensure fairness and protection for all of your staff members.

Make Anti-Harassment Part of the Company Culture

Once you have built the official anti-harassment policy, the last and most important step is to make it part of the company culture. Build it into the core of how people treat each other in your company, and encourage your team to feel strongly about defending people from harassment and correcting such behaviors that risk becoming harassment.

You want a workplace free of harassment risks where seniors quietly advise the interns that mean-spirited jokes are unwelcome behavior. Where supervisors quickly correct prejudicial language and discourage cruel gossiping. Internally driven prevention is the best way to stop harassment before it has a chance to start.

Employee Handbook and Workplace Posters

Make sure everyone knows how your anti-harassment policy defines harassment and how it is disciplined. Put it in the employee handbook, send out a periodic email update, and design a few posters to put up around the workplace alongside other compliance material. This will inform both potential victims that they have an avenue to safety and potential harassers that their antics are known and not tolerated.

Make HR Report Anonymity Sacred

Your team needs to be able to trust your human resources team when it matters. This means HR anonymity should be a known and reliable part of the company culture for everything, not just harassment cases. When your team knows that their concerns will be privately investigated, they will help you uphold a positive company culture with timely reports and honest witness statements.

Encourage Victims and Witnesses to File Reports

Be encouraging. Make it clear that HR is motivated to keeping the company culture safe and supportive. It's better to investigate a situation that makes someone uncomfortable, even when they're not sure if it's officially harassment, and find solutions than it is to allow harassers to continue unchecked.

A compassionate and encouraging HR team can make sure everyone is safe and supported. A fair, private investigation process does not necessarily damage anyone if a misunderstanding is at play.

Trust Your People

Lastly, always show trust. While every harassment report should be fully investigated and some situations are more complicated than they appear, victims will only feel comfortable reporting if they know that HR will listen without pre-judging the situation or dismissing anything off-hand.

Useful read: Personnel Policies: Crafting a Human Resources Framework for Success

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Topic: Policies / Harassment Policy