Having a clear, comprehensive and responsive harassment policy in place—and advertising its existence—is the best way to prevent a hostile work environment. Not coincidentally, that’s also the best way to avoid legal trouble.
Not only can a policy prevent harassment by letting everyone know what’s unacceptable, but it also ensures employees who believe they have been victims of harassment can’t claim ignorance of the available remedies.
Recent case: Owen Holt, who is black and of Jamaican descent, was fired for constant tardiness and other performance issues. Holt suspected discrimination and filed a federal lawsuit. That’s when he listed numerous allegedly racist comments made to or about him during his five years with the company.
His claims included incidents where his supervisor whistled “Dixie,” an independent contractor allegedly called black employees “porch monkeys” and a co-worker called Jamaica a Third World country and attacked the lyrics in reggae music.
However, the only time Holt used the company’s harassment policy—which he clearly knew about—was to complain about the independent contractor’s comment. And although he claimed to find the song “Dixie” very offensive, he never mentioned the incident. In fact, the whistling stopped after another co-worker told the supervisor it was an offensive song.
The court tossed out the case, concluding that Holt should have complained if he found the comments offensive. That the supervisor quit whistling “Dixie” when the co-worker commented about it was evidence that the harassment policy worked. Plus, the independent contractor’s comment was a one-time event.