In a survey of employers in the United States and the United Kingdom, four out of five types of litigation dangers reported by most respondents involved harassment and discrimination. Preventing and protecting against harassment and discrimination suits is mandatory.

Some Basics About the Laws

The federal government requires all employers who must comply with the various harassment and discrimination laws to post provisions of the laws in the workplace where all applicants and employees can view them.

Some states have provisions in their laws that are more stringent than the federal laws. So check you state laws when you are developing or updating your policies and procedures.

Federal equal employment laws requiring non-harassment and non-discrimination against persons in the protected classes generally apply to private employers with 15 or more employees. The protected classes are: race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects persons age 40 or older applying to or working for employers with 20 or more employees.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act require equal pay to male and female employees in similar positions working for employers with 15 or more employees. However, the Equal Pay Act requires equal pay for employees working for virtually all employers.

Also, state and local laws protecting employees may apply to employers with fewer than 15 to 20 employees.

4 Essentials for Your Employee Handbook

1. A statement that harassment and discrimination are prohibited.

The U.S. Supreme Court and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) require that an employer show it has informed supervisors and employees of a detailed policy prohibiting illegal harassment and discrimination that gives examples of prohibited behavior and providing a procedure for filing complaints.

Example: XYZ Company prohibits harassment and discrimination against and between employees based on legally-protected classes and factors of age (40 or older), race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, veteran status, disability or genetic information, and any other legally protected class or factor.

2. Clear definitions of illegal harassment (including sexual harassment) and discrimination, with examples.

Illegal harassment is behavior by a co-worker, supervisor or manager toward and employee that intimidates, insults, coerces, offends, or interferes with the coworker’s performance of his or her job because of the person’s legally protected factor or class.

Illegal discrimination is behavior by a co-worker, supervisor or manager that negatively affects or harms a job applicant or an individual’s employment, advancement prospects or benefits, or harms an employee’s job performance, because of the person’s legally protected factor or class.

Example: Harassment and discrimination include, but are not limited to:

  • Expressing comments, jokes, puns, innuendos, bantering, and teasing that demean, insult, or offend others.
  • Leering, gawking, and making other nonverbal gestures that are demeaning, insulting or offensive.
  • Posting or displaying pictures, photos, illustrations or objects in the workplace that demean or offend another person or persons, including sexually oriented pictures, photos and illustrations.
  • Sexually offensive comments, jokes, innuendos, and other sexually-oriented statements directed to an employee.

3. Instructions to immediately report harassment or discrimination, whether experienced or observed.

Example: Employees must be told that if they experience or believe they have experienced job-related harassment or discrimination, or believe they have witnessed it, they must report it immediately.

In addition, any supervisor or manager who becomes aware of harassing or discriminatory behavior must immediately report it to one of the top officials of the company and act immediately to end the behavior.

4. A complaint procedure.

Example: Employees should be given a choice of more than one person to report offending behavior to, such as their supervisor, acting supervisor or human resources director. The policy should also state that there will be an immediate fact-finding investigation, that individuals making the compliant will be treated courteously and the problem will be handled confidentially.

The action of registering complaints must not be used against the employee and must not harm the person’s employment status. Employees are cautioned that filing groundless and malicious complaints is an abuse of this policy and is prohibited.

[Consult with your attorney if you have other questions regarding harassment.]