By Richard I. Lehr, Esq.
Not only must a retail employer be sure that employees understand what behaviors from each other may result in harassment or bullying, but also what should be done if employees are harassed or bullied by customers or vendors.
Developing a workplace culture with a reduced risk of harassment begins with the commitment that employees will treat each other, customers and visitors – and be treated by customers and visitors – with the highest level of respect. Leadership sets the tone, so all members of the leadership team must model the behavior they hold employees accountable to following.
Include these points in a comprehensive, “plain English” policy defining workplace harassment and bullying and directing employees how to report such incidents:
- Define harassment to include unwelcome, offensive, degrading or threatening behavior, regardless of whether it is based on protected class status (race, sex, or otherwise).
- Explain whose behavior may be the source of harassment: supervisors, subordinates, peers, applicants, temporary employees, customers, vendors, visitors.
- Provide examples of behavior that would violate the policy and include specifics about what may be considered sexual harassment. Explain that no supervisor, manager or other leader may condition an employee’s continued employment or the receipt of any benefit or privilege based upon that employee’s submission to sexual advances. Many organizations have a “touch and go” policy regarding supervisors, managers and leaders: You touch or try to touch an employee, you go. This is regardless of whether the overtures are from the employee or the supervisor.
- Define what is meant by bullying, such as yelling, fist pounding, derogatory comments about an employee to others, attempts to sabotage an employee’s work, isolating an employee from others and threats of physical contact.
- Make clear the policy applies to employee actions away from work, including messages posted on social media. For example, an employee who makes a sexually inappropriate comment to another employee at work is also accountable if such comments are made to or about an employee on social media.
- Establish a process so employees know to whom harassment should be reported. Do not limit the report to the chain of command, as an employee may be reluctant to report to his or her immediate supervisor. Have enough reporting options available so he or she can report to someone of the same gender or same race.
- Encourage the reporting of behavior that may violate the company’s policies regarding equal employment opportunity, harassment or retaliation even if the employee reporting the behavior is not the recipient. There may be any number of reasons why the recipient of behavior chooses not to report it. For example, a teenage employee may feel inhibited about discussing sexual harassment with anyone in a management position. However, the culture should be that if another employee is aware of this possible harassment, then that employee should report it.
- Reported information will result in a prompt and thorough investigation. A thorough investigation is more than just asking the recipient or the alleged perpetrator what occurred. It is digging deeper to find out who else may have information about the incident or incidents.
- After the investigation, the employer should make a decision that is most likely to stop the behavior. In egregious cases, termination may be warranted. In lesser cases, some form of disciplinary action or coaching may occur. Unless the complainant or recipient agrees to it, moving either to a different shift may be considered retaliatory. Be careful about such a move.
- Retailers have a higher level of responsibility to make teenage employees aware of harassment and bullying issues and how it should be reported. For all employees, cover the policy in detail during the onboarding process and review at least annually. With newly hired employees, follow up within 90 days to find out if they are comfortable with their working relationships, any concerns and how they feel they have been treated overall. Reiterate the company’s harassment policy. Be sure supervisors and managers clearly understand that although a retail environment may have a social element, a supervisor or manager may not make overtures to a subordinate or engage in a physical relationship with a subordinate. The risk to the employer is simply too great. For example, a 22-year-old manager becomes involved with a 17-year-old employee and the relationship ends. The employee’s parents call, the employee says that she was forced into it (even if not true) and it becomes a potential reputational and legal mess for the retailer. The message to managers and supervisors is that the world is filled with people to become involved with, other than the ones who report to you.