By Kathleen Weiss, SPHR, Director of Human Resources at SWK Technologies
In this month’s edition of HR Advisor, I discuss workplace harassment, including sexual harassment which can become a difficult issue when your employees are not fluent in English.
We are an office cleaning company with about 30 employees in which employees work primarily in the evenings and with limited supervision. Recently, we’ve had some complaints from a few female employees that some male employees were being “inappropriate” in their language and demeanor. The women are unfortunately hesitant to report this behavior officially, because they are afraid of losing their jobs.
We certainly do not want a sexual harassment lawsuit on our hands, so what is the best way to make sure all our employees feel safe and respected and that everyone understands that they should feel comfortable at work? To add to the problem, many of our workers only speak Spanish.
Elias, San Francisco
Preventing workplace harassment and discrimination is an ongoing challenge for any company. This is especially true in smaller companies where familiarity leads to inappropriate jokes and behaviors. Sometimes these inappropriate behaviors are overlooked, but sometimes they aren’t. It is your job to keep your employees safe from discrimination, harassment, and workplace hazards all the time. Here are some ways that you can create a clear policy to ensure that your workplace is always comfortable for every employee.
The first questions I would ask of you are “Do you have an employee handbook?” and “Has it has been updated recently?” The employee handbook is your first line of defense because it communicates the standards expected from each employee. Your anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policy should be rock solid and prepared by either an employment attorney or an HR consultant who has experience writing policy.
Once you have the proper policy, you need to communicate it LOUD AND CLEAR. This should be done during orientation, staff meetings, and by managers in a small group or personalized setting on a regular basis. Employees should know that there will be no retaliation to reporting and that harassment and/or discrimination will not be tolerated. Communicating to the management staff that they could personally be liable for harassment claims is usually a big wake-up call for them.
Because your company has fewer than 50 employees, you are not obligated to have anti-harassment training. However, even though it is not a requirement, I do strongly suggest it. Web-based trainings, law firms, and HR trainers are all options available to you, depending on your company needs and your budget. Training costs are minimal compared to the consequences.
The question of translating your company documents is big one. Employers who provide an English-only employee handbook are unable to communicate policies, benefits, and safety issues to members of their staff who may speak other languages. Spanish-speaking employees need to know the same information as your English-speaking employees.
Here’s an example:
Maria quits because she is harassed by Jose and she files a sexual harassment lawsuit. You feel she should have reported it, as is stated in the employee handbook. Maria does not read English. How can you expect her to know what to do? Not only are you not protecting your employees from harassment because of lack of information but this may also be considered discrimination. Should only your English-speaking workers understand that they are protected from harassment and discrimination? Should only they have information regarding procedures and know that they will not be retaliated against? Obviously, the answer to this is a big, “No.” It is your responsibility to convey this information to all employees.
Translating a handbook from English to Spanish is an expense but it pales in comparison to what you could potentially have to pay if you are slapped with a discrimination or harassment lawsuit. Chalk up the translation to the cost of running your business fairly.
As a final note regarding your current situation, please take action immediately. It is your responsibility to protect your workers, investigate and take action against offenders, and communicate a “no tolerance” policy to all of your employees. Hispanic workers should be afforded access to the same information as your English-speaking employees and if that means translating your handbook, I would recommend doing so.
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