To prepare to meet their expanded legal obligations, employers who operate in New York have spent the last few weeks and months updating their employee training programs.
As workforce compliance professionals know, this can be a challenging and resource-intensive task: many learning management systems don’t meet New York’s “interactive” standards and aren’t easily updatable. There’s a reason those corporate training videos from the 90s have held out for so long.
But if you do business in New York, you’ll need to do more than implement modern training content to ensure compliance by October 9th. The new laws concern not only what employees are taught about harassment, but how they actually respond to alleged incidents in the workplace.
The million-dollar question is what happens when there’s a complaint.
That’s not hyperbole. Between legal fees, negative publicity, and employee turnover, we could be talking about literal millions of dollars.
Complaint Handling: Why It Matters and What’s at Risk
How your company responds—or rather, doesn’t respond—to a harassment complaint can destroy your reputation, erode your organizational culture, and generate costly fines and lawsuits. In contrast with an hour or two of training annually, your complaint handling procedures are the daily reality of harassment prevention; they’re everything that happens when an employee experiences unwanted sexual contact, commentary, or threats in the workplace. The best anti-harassment training in the world doesn’t make a difference if the organization doesn’t give employees a means to report on incidents and promptly address complaints.
Moreover, your complaint procedures—not your training materials—are what regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys are paying attention to when building a case against you. Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Stephen J. Roppolo, a labor and employment attorney with Fisher Phillips, told us about harassment complaints during Compli’s webinar on anti-harassment best practices earlier this year (emphasis added):
“Complaint handling is crucial. This may be the most important step from a litigation standpoint because it potentially provides an organization with an affirmative defense. From an employee relations standpoint, it’s also critical that employees know their complaints are going to be taken seriously. Otherwise, employees may be reluctant to file complaints at all. The policy should make clear that complaints will be handled by more than one person. Even in a small organization, any manager or supervisor who has authority to hire and fire ought to be available to receive complaints. If an organization can show that employees know how to complain, and that they, in fact, did not complain, that goes a long way toward an affirmative defense in a legal dispute.”
Requirements and Best Practices for Employers
New York State’s new laws require every employer to “adopt a prevention policy that includes a complaint form for employees to report alleged incidents of sexual harassment.” To expand on this requirement, the state has released a model complaint form for reporting sexual harassment (PDF), as well as the following general list of instructions for employers:
“If you receive a complaint about alleged sexual harassment, you must follow your sexual harassment prevention policy by investigating the allegations through actions such as:
- Speaking with the employee
- Speaking with the alleged harasser
- Interviewing witnesses
- Collecting and reviewing any related documents
You should create a written document of the findings of the investigation, along with any corrective actions taken and notify the employee and the individual(s) against whom the complaint was made. This may be done via email.”
The state is planning on releasing further guidance soon. In the meantime, here are 5 tips for proactively combating harassment:
- Create and follow a robust anti-harassment policy. Zero tolerance is the standard for most harassment policies. Employees should know there’s no form of minor or acceptable harassment.
- Keep employees’ needs and rights in mind. The policy should communicate that no employee who complains will be subject to retaliation, and that the privacy of all parties will be protected.
- Look for warning signs. You don’t need to be a trained social worker or therapist to know if an individual in your organization is likely the victim of harassment. Many forms of harassment, such as name-calling and vandalization, occur in the open.
- Set the tone at the top. Leaders should always strive to model correct behavior and refrain from engaging in harassment or any discriminatory behavior.
- Act as soon as possible. Respond to and investigate complaints in a timely manner. The faster your follow-up process, the better protected you are.
For additional guidance and information, make sure to visit the harassment topic center in Compli’s Resource Library.
Compli Is Here to Help
Again, employers in New York have just a few weeks to implement these policies and programs. And did I mention the additional, New York City-specific laws coming to effect in May?
That said, workplace harassment isn’t limited to New York, and neither is the new wave of anti-harassment litigation. Similar laws are already coming to California and Maryland, and we expect other states to follow suit soon.
When laws move fast, employers need to move even faster. That’s where Compli’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Quick Start Program comes in.
In just 2–3 days, you can ensure complete regulatory compliance, now and into the future. Features include online training courses, policies written to meet the new requirements, incident reporting and tracking, auditing and reporting tools, and more—all developed in line with state and federal best practices.