Ensure harassment reporting policy is clear

If you require employees to report alleged harassment, you have some legal protection if you take prompt action to stop the misconduct.

However, if the reporting process is confusing, contradictory or otherwise ineffective, it may not benefit you at all. In fact, it could backfire completely if the employee claims it’s just a way to deflect blame and confuse victims.

Recent case: Byron, who is black, started work as a service engineer with an energy company. After a successful 60-day probationary period, he got a good review that noted his leadership qualities. He believed he would be considered for a supervisory position and spoke many times with his boss about promotions and getting additional training.

But soon the supervisor began sending mixed messages, implying that his race would hold him back. Byron began keeping a diary in which he noted racial slurs. He also noted comments he overheard that higher ups had given a supervisory job to a young white man who had no experience.

The company’s harassment reporting policy required workers to inform the alleged harasser that the behavior was unwelcome. If that didn’t work, the employee was supposed to report it to HR. However, another section required workers to go to the next-level supervisor.

Byron first complained about a racially hostile environment to his boss, but didn’t want to go to the next level. He eventually sent emails to HR and other managers.

Then he was fired, and sued.

Byron’s employer argued that he should have gone immediately to HR. The court disagreed, citing the confusing policy that seemed to have contradictory provisions. It concluded Byron had tried to use the policy, cutting off the company’s defense. A jury will decide whether Byron worked in a racially hostile environment. (Dunn v. HES, SD TX, 2017)