HR experts: Victims must report harassment to get relief

If you are the victim of sexual harassment at work, it is important to know the right steps to take to protect yourself. That’s where a good sexual-harassment or discrimination policy in the employee handbook can come in handy.

If the company has set procedures for how an employee can report this type of behavior, they should follow those procedures. Typically, it is up to the victim to bring the abuse to the attention of a supervisor, the manager of human resources or the person in charge of the whole operation.

“If you are harassed at work by your supervisor, the employee needs to discuss the situation and their concern with the HR department,” said Melissa Standard, partner and consultant with Integrated HR Solutions LLC in Fort Collins. “If the company doesn’t have an HR department, then another trusted member of management would be a good alternative. If the boss is the president or CEO, then concerns could be discussed with the board of directors.”

She adds that employees should never assume that management is aware of what’s going on, so they should always bring their concerns forward.

The assumption when an employee comes forward with claims of sexual harassment is that the harassment has happened multiple times.

“If a person has not made someone aware of it, they can’t expect the employer to take care of it,” she said.

If a victim comes forward to claim sexual harassment and they are fired for it, it is hard to prove such a claim if there is no documentation or the victim never told anyone else it was happening, Standard said.

In a case like this, it is up to HR or the management to separate the two parties involved in the complaint. That could mean putting them both on paid leave until an investigation of the claims is completed.

“We try to do a very thorough investigation quickly so that the person is not out that long,” Standard said.

She said that people who feel they have been victimized shouldn’t tell everyone in the office their complaints. They should first go up the chain of command. They should tell their immediate supervisor. If nothing happens, they should tell human resources. If that doesn’t work, they should go right to the top, and if that doesn’t work, then they may have to seek help outside of the company.

“People need to remember that everything can be brought up in a court of law. It can be very damaging. People need to be careful of what they put in emails, and phone calls can be recorded,” she said.

Patrick Ryder, vice president and executive liability practice leader for Hub Colorado, said that the work environment may become so hostile for some individuals that they are forced to leave the company and file suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The claim would be sexual harassment and constructive discharge, which means the employee quit on their own accord because of the hostile work environment. 

In a situation like that, the company can be on the hook for damages that include salary replacement for every day the person is out of a job, punitive damages and defense costs.

“It is better to have the process and procedures in place at the front end so you can address it internally. If you do this, you are saving an awful lot of time. If you go through one month’s investigation where you are working with the employees to get to the bottom of it, you make a decision to act, you just saved yourself a year and a half of lawyers before you have to go to court,” Ryder said.

Small businesses look at their employees as family, and, as such, the work environment can become very casual. It is in this type of situation where sexual harassment issues crop up.

“I don’t think people realize how a relaxed environment can come back to bite them. I think a lot of people do poopoo it. It is a slow learning curve,” Standard said.

Employees who witness sexual harassment in the workplace also can lodge a claim of sexual harassment because what’s happening to someone else makes them uncomfortable. The victim can claim it was a hostile work environment.

“I think employers definitely tend to take the side of an executive,” she said. They claim the victim is too sensitive or that everyone at the Christmas party was drinking, so why is this particular manager on the hook for whatever happened there.

Standard believes that the current climate, where more and more people are coming forward to report what has happened to them, is a good thing at the end of the day.

“I just think it is going to be painful for a lot of employers until they realize this is the way things are,” she said.

Nikki Larchar, co-founder and HR business partner at simplyHR in Fort Collins, said that having an employee handbook is a great tool to protect a business but it doesn’t “provide enough to educate and prevent harassment. Training that only focuses on what harassment is and how to report incidents is not providing employees with the tools they need to respond in moments when harassment is occurring.”

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If you are the victim of sexual harassment at work, it is important to know the right steps to take to protect yourself. That’s where a good sexual-harassment or discrimination policy in the employee handbook can come in handy.

If the company has set procedures for how an employee can report this type of behavior, they should follow those procedures. Typically, it is up to the victim to bring the abuse to the attention of a supervisor, the manager of human resources or the person in charge of the whole operation.

“If you are harassed at work by your supervisor, the employee needs to discuss the situation and their concern with the HR department,” said Melissa Standard, partner and consultant with Integrated HR Solutions LLC in Fort Collins. “If the company doesn’t have an HR department, then another trusted member of management would be a good alternative. If the boss is the president or CEO, then concerns could be discussed with the board of directors.”

She adds that employees should never assume that management is aware of what’s going on, so they should always bring their concerns forward.

The assumption when an employee comes forward with claims of sexual harassment is that the harassment has happened multiple times.

“If a person has not made someone aware of it, they can’t expect the employer…