Whether it’s an executive putting his hand on the secretary’s knee during business meetings or a boss who continually denies requests time off to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, workplace harassment is a serious problem that if left unchecked can lead to lawsuits or even a complete office meltdown.

Attorney Annmarie Simeone of the Somerset-based Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, says it’s crucial for employers to be objective when handling claims of workplace harassment. She will offer tips on how to deal with alleged workplace harassment and discuss the importance of completing a thorough investigation on Tuesday, November 18 at 8:30 a.m. at NMM’s Bridgewater office. For information about this free seminar, titled, “When to Call Your Lawyer: A Seminar for Business Owners & Executives,” call 908-252-4172, visit www.nmmlaw.com, or E-mail ccoldreck@nmmlaw.com.

Simeone was born and raised in Woodbridge, where she now lives with her husband and two sons. Her mother is a medical receptionist, and her father, now deceased, worked as a supervising and operating engineer. After studying political science at St. John’s University, she earned her J.D. from Seton Hall in 1993.

Being a lawyer, Simeone says, allows her to learn and interact with different people on a daily basis. “I was actually always one of those people who wanted to be a lawyer,” says Simeone, who specializes in labor and employment litigation. “We get really interesting clients and cases.”

Defining workplace harassment. Workplace harassment is an umbrella term that encompasses all forms of harassment, including those based on gender, religion, race, and disability, Simeone says. While sexual harassment is the most well-known form, it can also include bullying, use of derogatory slurs, and refusal to grant days off for religious observances. “It’s hard to put it in a nutshell,” she says. “It’s really fact-sensitive.”

Investigating complaints. Since investigations are fact-sensitive, employers must handle each complaint on a case-by-case basis in a thorough manner. That includes interviewing the person lodging the complaint, the alleged harasser and any witnesses, as well as reviewing all pertinent documents and information.

In addition, employers should give all complaints equal weight, being mindful not to simply brush off a complaint because they feel it’s a waste of time or not worthwhile, Simeone says. “Employers should act promptly in addressing concerns, but certainly, not in a haphazard way. The best practice is to investigate all complaints that come in. You have to take them all seriously.”

Larger companies typically have a human resources department that handles complaints. However, for small companies, it’s important for employers to select a person who is objective, respected, trained, and knowledgeable about both the employer and harassment laws to investigate complaints. Another option, she says, is to hire an outside person or company to investigate complaints.

Whether conducting an in-house or third-party investigation, employers must take measures to protect the employees who have submitted the complaint to ensure their safety and overall well-being. That could mean placing them in a temporary position or relocating their office, Simeone says. “Most employers are aware they can’t take retaliatory action,” she says.

Utilize training. Training staff about workplace harassment and how the company handles it can be invaluable for employees, Simeone says. Training sessions help employees gain a better understanding of what could be considered workplace harassment, as well as an understanding of the company’s policies in reporting and investigating complaints.

Optional or mandatory training sessions should be offered throughout the year, and if a complaint is filed, it’s a good idea to be proactive and hold a refresher course. When trained, “everybody is playing under the same rules,” Simeone says. “The more training you provide, the more it shows the employer is dedicated to being workplace-harassment free.”

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