Avoiding a Hostile Work Environment

As a manager, I have had repeated complaints from employees about a fellow employee telling offensive jokes. Sometimes they are just overhearing them but are nonetheless still offended. How do I approach this employee when many of the complaints are based on hearsay?

This is another great question and one that is so very important for you to understand how to handle as a manager/leader. This one can get you into lots of trouble and can create additional problems if you do not handle it correctly.

The first rule-of-thumb as a leader and a manager who is responsible for people is that once you have knowledge of an issue, you basically own that issue and must take the appropriate action to correct things. In this case, when an employee is offended by something that another employee is saying, your workplace can potentially be deemed a hostile work environment. This is one in which all employees do not feel comfortable and may even feel threatened. Now that you have knowledge of this, it is your responsibility as the leader to remedy this situation swiftly and decisively.

When you receive a hearsay complaint such as this, you will need to investigate. Start by asking the complainant for their side of the situation, asking them if they did, in fact, tell what could be offensive or inappropriate jokes in the office. Make it clear that this behavior is inappropriate for the workplace and that they should immediately stop the practice of telling such jokes. Usually, this is all it takes to stop the offensive language; however, I would suggest you take it a step further. Take this opportunity to look at what training, if any, your employees have had in this area. I’m willing to bet that your company/organization has an acceptable conduct policy and if so, has everyone signed off on that policy? If not, make sure they understand what is acceptable and what is not, and have them sign statements that they have read and understand the conduct policy.

If there is a dispute over what the two individuals, the complainer and the complainant, are telling you and/or you have already done all of the above, then you should seek out other employees for written statements. Once you determine that the employee has indicated an understanding of the acceptable conduct policy and has chosen to violate it, then you must take immediate action to discipline and perhaps even remove the employee from the workplace, depending on the level of the complaint.


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