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Harassment is Not a LOL Matter

This article originally appeared in the May/June/July 2012 American Association of School Personnel Administrators Best Practices Magazine, "Legal Issues Within HR: Keeping Yourself Up To Date". Reprinted with permission.

In today's high-tech world, it is easier than ever for people to stay connected. Any time, any place, we can share information instantly with friends, family, and coworkers living in the next city or across the globe. However, while this enhanced connectivity has transformed business and education, made communication faster and easier, and helped promote sharing and learning, it can also be a human resource professional's worst nightmare. The more opportunities colleagues have to communicate, the greater chance there is of someone (accidentally or purposefully) crossing the line.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment is any form of discrimination or unwanted conduct based on race or color, religion, sex (which includes pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Harassment can not only occur in person, but through email, social media, texting, and other communications, making it more difficult for HR departments in schools and other organizations to monitor and address the problem. Following are six facts about harassment as well as some recommended solutions that every HR professional should know.

Fact 1: Textual harassment is harassment, via text.
There are many terms used today to classify harassment, bullying, and stalking. These include cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and sexting (sending sexual messages via text). Another is textual harassment, or harassment via texting.

Fact 2: The EEOC does not keep specific track of textual harassment.
According to the National Law Journal, "textual harassment" cases are becoming more prevalent in the court system." So why doesn't the EEOC keep records of this type of harassment? According to Dianna Johnston, assistant legal counsel for the EEOC, "Harassment is harassment, regardless of how it's communicated. Anything in the environment that makes the workplace hostile can contribute to liability. The test is the same whether you're talking about written or verbal harassment. The bottom line is the same at any time."

Fact 3: Harassment can transcend boundaries.
A common misconception is that harassment can only occur between two employees or a manager and his or her subordinate. According to the EEOC, "The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee." This means educators and other school district employees could be harassed by vendors, parents, or students.

Fact 4: Harassment knows no gender.
Many believe sexual harassment occurs only when a male makes unwanted advances toward a female. Harassment can occur between two males, two females, a female and a male, or a male and a female. The following chart displays sexual harassment charges filed with state and local Fair Employment Practice Agencies as well as the EEOC from fiscal year 2005-2011. This chart covers all industries, including education. As you can see, approximately 16 percent of charges filed between 2007 and 2011 were by males.
EEOC Data 2005-2011.PNG

Fact 5: "The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct."

As an example, this means that if an administrative assistant witnesses a teacher sexually harassing a principal in the teachers' lounge, they too can claim distress and receive monetary benefit. A "victim" does not have to be directly involved in the harassment discrimination interaction.

Fact 6: Bullying and harassment are different.
While some think of bullying and harassment as synonymous, there are actually some key differences. In education we frequently speak about children as bullies, but this shows that adults can also be bullies. Specifically, actions are considered "harassment" when they call out an individual's protected class such as race or gender. In addition, harassment is handled by the EEOC, while bullying is not.

A 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying firsthand. The survey also found that bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment.

What is the Solution?

Should school districts bar their employees from using Facebook, Twitter, internal instant messaging, and other communication platforms to help lessen the risk of harassment? Some do. Yet, most innovative organizations and highly trained human resource departments let people use these technologies, but work to create an understanding around proper use. Decisions must be made on an organization-by-organization basis, but we suggest that all HR departments:

1. Be proactive and continuously revisit harassment and bullying policies. Communicate to staff that harassment or bullying of any kind is not tolerated. School districts should ensure that all teachers, school leaders, and non-instructional personnel confirm receipt of the district's handbook containing rules, procedures, and other information about the issue.
2. Provide a way for employees to safely and anonymously report incidents of harassment, bullying, or retaliation.
3. Remind staff about appropriate usage of district-owned computers, phones, email addresses, work social media accounts, etc. as well as the data storage and recall features available.
4. Document and address all cases of harassment immediately. Employers get in trouble when they do not take timely action to prevent or correct the behavior.
5. Stay up to date. Visit the EEOC website, read articles, and network with members of groups like the Society of Human Resource Managers or the American Association of School Personnel Administrators about harassment policies and procedures. Your organization's attorney also should be able to assist with questions about harassment, bullying, or retaliation issues.

Textual harassment is not an LOL matter. School district HR professionals should work with their organization's leadership to develop policies for monitoring, reporting, and alleviating cases of harassment and bullying. They must also ensure staff members are aware of these rules and procedures. Harassment can be difficult to discuss, but addressing the issue is critical to ensuring a safe, comfortable, fair, and enjoyable work environment as well as a culture of success for educators and students.

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