Harassment issues require serious approach
"The key is to take every report seriously and not prejudge the situation," says Brian LaFratta. That's because the initial report "often is the tip of the iceberg, an underreported situation."
We were talking workplace harassment -- sexual harassment, to be specific. Smaller business situations may not make the big headlines, but the issue is serious in at least two ways.
For one thing, "State laws prohibit sexual harassment, and the company can be held liable" for violations, LaFratta says. For another, "A good business owner wants employees to be comfortable in the workplace." Harassment issues take away that comfort.
LaFratta knows. He is an employment attorney at Wheaton-headquartered Huck Bouma PC.
Your first step as business owner when an employee -- often but not always female -- brings a complaint to you is to take it seriously. Be calm.
"Thanks for bringing this to my attention," is what LaFratta suggests as a good initial response. But that's only the initial response. Fundamental, LaFratta continues, is to get the facts.
You might have a hugger employee whose actions are seen as benign and accepted by other workers -- and a younger female who doesn't want to be hugged by an older male.
By itself, a hug is not harassing, LaFratta says, but from the female employee's perspective the hug is off base.
Whatever the specific incident, "Interview everybody (involved)," LaFratta says. "You have to figure out what happened.
"Talk to the accused harasser. Talk to any witnesses."
It helps, of course, to have both a written anti-harassment policy and at least annual companywide training on the subject. If nothing else, the policy and training will help put your business in good stead if the issue moves into the judicial system.
If your company has a strong human resources function, you may be able to turn the investigation over to HR. Most smaller businesses, however, do not have the robust type of internal human resources support needed. Besides, attorney Nancy Joerg wrote in a Wessels Sherman client newsletter last month, "The reality is that sexual harassment cases can be difficult to investigate. Rarely does a (n) ... employee have conclusive proof (of sexual harassment)."
Even so, Joerg, managing shareholder at Wessels Sherman's St. Charles office, writes, " ... a good workplace sexual harassment investigation can reduce tensions and be a legal defense for the company in the event of a workplace sexual harassment lawsuit."
Company size is no protection. Although Illinois' human rights legislation applies to companies that employ 15 or more people in the state, Joerg's article states that employers can be sued on sexual harassment and handicap discrimination issues regardless of the number of employees -- even one.
So far, most of the biggest sexual harassment headlines have involved the biggest names. That may be because, as LaFratta notes, in Illinois most such workplace complaints generally must be filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 300 days of the most recent alleged incident.
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