New York--Employers are on the losing end of most lawsuits brought by employees, Cecilia Gardner said, but there are many things businesses can do to prevent issues before they arise.

Gardner, former president and CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, addressed an audience gathered Monday at the JA New York Spring show for an education session titled “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, Tools for Employees and Businesses.”

2016 Cecilia Garnder smallerCecilia Gardner
Her session was presented as part of the Women’s Jewelry Association’s Gender Equality Project, launched last year in partnership with the JVC.

Gardner explained that several federal laws prohibit harassment, a form of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex/gender, national origin, age, disability or genetic information, as well as other protected characteristics.

Comments, jokes, online postings, or any conduct that targets employees based on one or more of the above characteristics is considered hostile environment harassment.

And it’s not just the people at the top who are responsible for this type of conduct; employees can bring a lawsuit against a company if they’re experiencing harassment from anyone, including co-workers, customers and vendors, she said.

If the harassment creates a work environment for an employee that a reasonable person would find hostile, intimidating or offensive, then it’s illegal and opens employers up to a lawsuit that they will likely lose.

Gardner emphasized that in harassment situations, the power lies with the employee, or whoever takes legal action. Anyone who witnesses harassment and is offended by it can also file a suit. The average award for these claims is $150,000.

However, petty slights, annoyances or isolated incidents—unless severe—are unlikely to succeed in court, she said.

What Businesses Can Do to Prevent Lawsuits
Gardner emphasized that if companies have clear and oft-stated policies prohibiting harassment in any form, and foster an environment where employees feel safe to speak to their managers, they can avoid situations severe enough to result in legal action.

Here are a few tips:
-- Develop an anti-discrimination and harassment policy that both defines and prohibits harassment;
-- Outline steps for employees to take if they feel they have experienced discrimination or unwelcome behavior and, most importantly, to report it to management as soon as possible;
-- Prohibit any type of retaliation for reporting misconduct in the company’s policy;
-- Communicate these policies to vendors working with the business;
-- Include the policies in an employee handbook that employees read and sign;
-- When employees come to management, for any issue, hear and address their concerns; and
-- Hire and fire carefully by outlining a clear procedure for firing employees, documenting why they are being let go and sticking to that procedure.

A full example of an employee handbook with all policies and information that should be included is available on the Jewelers Vigilance Committee website.

As for employees who experience harassment and/or discrimination, Gardner advised the following.

-- Consider safety first and remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation.
-- Tell the person the conduct is unwelcome.
-- Report the incident immediately to management or human resources.
-- If an employee questions whether conduct is harassment, bring it to management and discuss.
-- Document what happened, sign and date it, keep a copy and give one to management.
-- Tell someone else so you have a witness.

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