In this week’s Power Idea, we thought we would touch upon a topic that all Leaders and Managers have the potential to deal with, especially in these times of a heightened awareness and sensitivity to harassment that has been leading the news stories, almost daily. Strategic Alliance Partner and our expert in all matters Human Resources, Ginny McMinn, has some very good advice to all of us about this important issue that impacts all organizations.

In light of recent news headlines and social media discussions, organizations are concerned about sexual harassment and whether harassment is occurring in their workplaces. Based on the escalating number of complaints, legal cases, and individuals aligned with movements such as #MeToo and #Timesup, leaders should take proactive steps to provide safe workplaces.

Based on federal and state law, case decisions and regulations, employers’ obligations for harassment prevention are clear. Fulfilling these requirements is the “best defense” employers have.

The expectations of employers in the prevention of harassment generally (not just sexual harassment), are the following:

1. Create and publicize a written policy against harassment and against a hostile working environment. Employer policies should define harassment, its most common forms, and take a stand against harassment, including sexual harassment, in the workplace.

2. Create and sustain awareness of the laws and company policy against harassment. This should include an identification of its types, such as ethnic, racial or sexual harassment. Many employers conduct training on harassment prevention, often as a policy is introduced and periodically to sustain awareness.

3. Train managers and leaders in their unique role and dual responsibilities related to harassment. Managers and leaders are responsible for both their personal behavior and the behavior of employees they supervise; they should be aware in the workplace. Managers are often the first to receive complaints, and must also know the appropriate things to say and do, as well as the actions and comments to avoid in these circumstances. They also need to know who to engage once they are aware of an issue, including HR, if available, or a senior leader. These actions must be taken in a timely manner.

4. Create a procedure for how to report an instance of harassment. This should include options for an employee to report an incident, including the ability to bypass a supervisor, if needed. Usually, an employee may report an issue to HR, his/her manager or next level manager, or senior leader. Since the manager may be the alleged harasser (or perceived as a supporter or friend of the harasser), it is important to provide an option so the employee will report the issue.

5. Once a complaint is made, be prepared to conduct a prompt and confidential investigation. It should be conducted by someone knowledgeable about harassment and investigation responsibilities, often HR, a consultant or attorney. The investigation should be as confidential as possible. Those interviewed should be warned that the interview must remain confidential.

6. Depending on facts of the incident and the investigation results, employers must take appropriate steps to counsel, correct or discipline individuals where harassment has occurred. Actions should be consistent with previous discipline in similar situations, and documented along with the findings of the investigation.

7. It is critical to avoid retaliation against the accuser and others involved in the investigation. Follow the policy and procedure. Conduct the appropriate investigation. Make decisions and carry out coaching or discipline, as required by its results. Make it clear as these decisions are communicated that retaliation against the accuser or witnesses is not allowed.

Taking the first four steps proactively helps employers to establish harassment-free organizations and makes policies known to employees and management. If a complaint is brought forward, the employer’s prompt and confidential response, investigation and action based on results, demonstrate to employees that the employer is committed to providing a harassment-free workplace. Being proactive, training employees and responding well to accusations are critical to an employer’s defense, if a legal case is brought.