By law, every employer must have a harassment policy. In the meetings context, the task is to make sure those policies work in an expanded workplace. Planners and their attendees need to combat harassment away from the traditional office setting and in situations involving a variety of nonemployees, such as vendors and members. The best advice is to have a clear, well-defined policy.
First and foremost, employees should understand their rights and responsibilities and know that their employer will protect them. Take the time to explain the policy; don't just hand it to employees.
With nonemployees, guard against liability by publishing your policy whenever possible. Consider including it in packages to members and conference attendees and even, in a stripped-down form, as part of vendor agreements.
Initiating an Investigation
When an alleged harasser is not an employee, you may feel you have little leverage to gain his or her cooperation. To improve your chances, make your discussions with the complaining person as complete as possible. Emphasize to the alleged harasser that an investigation does not necessarily mean that harassment has occurred or that the findings will be publicized or the result will be termination. By the same token, don't promise that termination or some other drastic measure will not be taken.
If the alleged harasser won't cooperate and is a vendor's employee, enlist the vendor. Given its own liability concerns, your vendor is probably willing to cooperate. Get the vendor's assurance that the information will be handled confidentially.
If the alleged harasser is a member, go through the member's employer. Or refer to your policy and use the person's membership as leverage. If the member refuses to cooperate, consider taking action to terminate the membership. Revenue from a membership usually doesn't outweigh the potential liability of an ignored complaint.
When the alleged harasser is an officer or a director, removing the person from a position of authority can be used as leverage. When dealing with officers and directors, it often is best to approach the person through a respected peer or superior.
The law requires prompt and effective action regardless of a harasser's identity. To start, ask the complaining employee what he or she would like done.
When the harasser is a vendor's employee, coordinate with the vendor. You can't suspend, warn, or terminate that employee, but the vendor can and often must. Have the vendor prevent contact between its employee and your employee, or relieve your employee of duties during which he or she would be in contact with the harasser (as long as the change does not negatively affect your employee's job or standing within the organization). In some cases, the only alternative may be to change vendors.
When the harasser is an employee of a member organization, require that a different individual represent the organization at functions at which your employee is working. Or excuse the employee from duties involving the member (unless this action negatively effects the employee's job or standing), or revoke membership. When the harasser is an officer or director, deny access to events at which the employee is working, or suspend or terminate the person's service. Certainly, remove the person from any role in evaluating the employee's performance.
Finally, do not overlook documentation. Maintain a file on every report of harassment. This will help to determine patterns and to address situations in which harassment claims repeatedly arise.
Jed R. Mandel is a partner with the Chicago-based law firm of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg and the principal author of this column. This article was prepared by Victoria L. Donati, a partner in NG&E's Employment Law Group.