Preventing Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment remains a significant challenge for many organizations, with far-reaching consequences for both employees and employers. Proactive strategies are essential for creating safe, respectful, and legally compliant work environments. To prevent workplace harassment, it is crucial to foster a culture of respect and accountability. This involves not only setting clear behavioral expectations but also empowering employees to report concerns without fear of retaliation.

Understanding Legal Obligations

The legal landscape for workplace harassment is evolving, with significant recent developments emphasizing the importance of proactive measures. In Virginia, employers must comply with both federal and state laws. Key federal laws include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, gender and sex, including sexual harassment. Virginia’s state laws reinforce these protections and can include additional requirements.

Notably, not all workplace harassment or bullying is illegal. Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates specific laws such Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act. For harassment to be considered unlawful, it must be unwelcome or unwanted, it must be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile or offensive work environment for reasonable people, and it must relate back to a protected category or right. Isolated incidents and annoyances are generally not considered illegal, unless they are extremely serious. Additionally, the unwelcome conduct generally must be based on factors such as race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age or disability. Rude or offensive behavior that does not meet these standards may be discouraged and subject to discipline, though not necessarily unlawful.

Developing Comprehensive Anti-Harassment Policies

The foundation of any strategy to prevent workplace harassment is a comprehensive anti-harassment policy. This policy should clearly define what constitutes harassment, outline the procedures for reporting and investigating complaints, and specify the consequences for violators. Key elements of an effective policy include:
Clear Definitions: Define harassment broadly to include sexual harassment and other forms of discriminatory behavior. A company may also extend its policies to incorporate additional standards relating to bullying, threats of violence or similar behaviors.
Reporting Mechanisms: Provide multiple channels for employees to report harassment, ensuring confidentiality and protection from retaliation.
Investigation Procedures: Establish clear, fair, and prompt investigation procedures to address complaints.

Training and Education

Training is crucial in fostering a harassment-free workplace. Employers should implement regular training programs that educate employees about their rights and responsibilities, the company’s policies, and how to recognize and report harassment. Training should be:
Mandatory and Regular: Ensure all employees, including managers and supervisors, undergo regular training sessions.
Tailored to the Workplace: Customize training content to address specific workplace environments and challenges.

Foster a Culture of Respect

Building a respectful workplace culture goes beyond compliance with legal requirements. It involves fostering an environment where all employees feel valued and safe. Strategies to create such a culture include:

Leadership: Ensure that company leadership demonstrates a strong commitment to preventing harassment by modeling respectful behavior and actively promoting the company’s policies.
Employee Engagement: Encourage employees to participate in creating a positive work environment through open communication and involvement in policy development.
Zero-Tolerance Policy: Enforce a zero-tolerance policy for harassment consistently, ensuring that all complaints are taken seriously and addressed promptly.

Implementing Preventive Measures

Proactive measures are essential to prevent harassment before it occurs. These can include:

Regular Audits and Surveys: Conduct regular workplace audits and employee surveys to identify potential risks and areas for improvement.
Anonymous Reporting Systems: Implement anonymous reporting systems to allow employees to report harassment without fear of retaliation.
Monitoring and Evaluation: Continuously monitor the effectiveness of anti-harassment policies and training programs, making adjustments as needed based on feedback and incident reports.

Legal Compliance and Updates

Staying informed about legal developments is critical for compliance. Employers should:

Monitor Legislative Changes: Keep abreast of changes in federal and state laws and consult with legal experts to ensure policies and practices are up-to-date and legally compliant.
Documentation and Record-Keeping: Maintain thorough documentation of all harassment reports, investigations, and training activities to demonstrate compliance and support potential legal defenses.

Responding to Complaints

When harassment complaints arise, the response must be swift, fair, and thorough. Key steps include:

Immediate Action: Take immediate action to address complaints, including separating the parties involved if necessary.
Fair Investigation: Conduct a fair and impartial investigation, ensuring confidentiality and respect for all parties.
Appropriate Remedies: Implement appropriate remedies, including disciplinary action against perpetrators and support for victims.

Preventing workplace harassment in Virginia requires a comprehensive, proactive approach that combines strong policies, effective training, a respectful workplace culture, and continuous legal compliance. By implementing these strategies, employers can not only comply with legal obligations but also create a safer, more inclusive, and productive work environment for all employees.

Virginia Law to Strengthen Ban on Employment Contracts that Limit Disclosure of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.

Virginia code Section 40.1-28.01 currently prevents employers from using non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements to conceal the details of sexual assaults occurring in the workplace. As recently signed into law, the statute will be amended to include broader claims of sexual harassment. The modified statute also will void non-disparagement provisions that could be asserted to stifle free speech of victims of sexual assault or harassment. While “sexual assault” is already defined in various criminal statutes, the modified provision will apply the definition of “sexual harassment” found in Virginia Code Section 30-129.4, which states:

Sexual harassment” means unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when such conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

The final version of the amendment does not go so far as to void provisions that limit the disclosure of other discrimination complaints.

Virginia Statute Limits Certain Provisions in Confidentiality Agreements

Virginia Code Section 40.1-28.01 was passed in 2019 to prohibit any provision in a nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement that has the purpose of concealing the details of a sexual assault. The new section is not retroactive, but it does ensure that employers will not be able to rely upon non-disclosure agreements to conceal sexual assaults occurring in the workplace. At present, the language is narrowly drafted to cover current and prospective employees only. Accordingly, confidentiality agreements executed by former employees in consideration for severance or settlement payments may not be covered by the statutory protection.

Can False Rumors Serve as the Basis for Claims of Sexual Harassment?

In Parker v. Reema Consulting, the Fourth Circuit addresses a claim where a female subordinate alleges that she was subjected of repeated rumors of sleeping with her supervisor to secure a promotion.  Importantly, company managers participated in the spreading of the rumors. To state a claim under Title VII for a hostile work environment because of sex, the plaintiff must allege workplace harassment that (1) was “unwelcome”; (2) was based on the employee’s sex; (3) was “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere”; and (4) was, on some basis, imputable to the employer.

In this case, The Fourth Circuit agrees that these sex based rumors can serve as the basis for a hostile environment claim and that the continuous nature of the harassment was sufficiently pervasive as to interfere in her work.

Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Supervisor Liability in Harassment Cases

Under Title VII, an employer may be liable for the workplace harassment of employees that is based on sex, race, religion or national origin.   The standard for liability often begins with the employment position of the alleged harasser.  When the harasser is a co-worker, a plaintiff must show that the company had knowledge of continuous and pervasive harassing behavior and failed to take remedial action.  Additionally, an employer can defend a claim by proving that an employee failed to utilize available corrective measures such as an internal HR complaint procedure.

However, when the alleged harasser is a supervisor, the standard for liability changes if the supervisor takes a tangible, adverse action against an employee.  In such cases, an employer may be vicariously liable for the conduct of its supervisors.  In Vance v. Ball St. University (April 2013), the U.S. Supreme Court provides clarification regarding the very definition of a supervisor under Title VII.    In a 5-4 decision, Vance holds that an employee is a supervisor “if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions against the victim, i.e., to effect a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”   Inversely stated, a supervisor is not someone who merely has some nebulous authority to instruct or direct another person in the performance of their duties.