Responding to Religious and Racial Harassment

If an employee complains of being harassed on the basis of racial or religious differences, the employer is obligated by federal and state laws to take prompt remedial action. That action should start with conducting an immediate, thorough investigation. When the investigation is over, the employer must determine the best course of action to respond to what was revealed. What the employer does at this point can make all the difference in the world as to whether or not the problem is resolved.

There is more than one scenario that can result from an investigation of this type. The investigation can reveal that some of the conduct complained about was inappropriate, but not illegal. Most employers’ harassment policies make it clear that inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated. But such policies also infer that the employer must follow through and address inappropriate conduct even if it does not violate the law.

In this case, employers have a number of options to resolve the problem, but the resolution must be appropriate to the circumstances. If the conduct was not severe, and happened on only a couple of occasions, an employer can issue verbal warnings, written warnings, or some other form of disciplinary action.  An example would be the ineligibility for promotion or bonuses for a period of time during which the offender’s conduct will be monitored.

On the other hand, if the conduct is severe, the employer may need to take a sterner approach. Depending on the offending employee’s work history, the relationship between the offender and the victimized employee, the type of conduct and the context in which it occurred, the employer still might have alternatives other than termination. Demotions, ineligibility for pay raises and bonuses for significantly longer periods of time, negative employment reviews, and the removal of supervisory duties can be effective in stopping the behavior. These should be accompanied by requirements to attend counseling or special training sessions. The employer should also include training for the entire affected department as part of his/her remediation plan.

It is important to remember that each situation requires an individual determination. The employer must balance the need to stop the conduct, prevent it from happening in the future, reduce liability risks, and maintain an environment that is conducive to productivity. That’s why it is imperative the employer works with human resources professionals and legal counsel to assess harassment complaints. Prompt, effective resolutions will ensure a loyal workforce and minimize the risk of any future litigation.

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