For small business owners, there are few employment issues that create quite as much stress as a workplace harassment complaint with state or federal regulators. But a legal complaint is the end of the long line of choices by both employees and the employer. In many cases, you could use conflict resolution strategies to address your employee’s concerns about discrimination or mistreatment before they go outside the company.

What Does a Workplace Harassment Complaint Look Like?

There are several federal and state anti-harassment laws that are designed to protect employees from facing discrimination and hurtful words and actions at work. There are lawyers who spend their entire careers arguing what is or isn’t workplace harassment. However, the laws generally protect employees from words, actions, or employment decisions against them because of certain protected traits such as:

  • Race, ethnicity, or national origin
  • Sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression)
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Pregnancy
  • Other related traits

That doesn’t mean that, as an employer, you need to be worried that any single sexually charged joke or racial slur will automatically result in legal trouble for your company. In all but the most severe instances, a complaint can only be filed after repeated significant behavior. Even then, as an employer, you have an opportunity to intervene to avoid a workplace harassment complaint. In fact, you are required to do so.

What are Employers’ Responsibilities in Responding to Workplace Harassment?

Most complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) are based on an employer’s failure to respond to workplace harassment complaints. Anti-harassment laws require you to take “reasonable” steps to respond to internal complaints and stop harassment from continuing. That means, as the employer, you get the first chance to stop harassing behavior and protect your employees’ rights. So what does that look like?

Workplace harassment complaints can start informally, even casually. The smaller your business is, the less likely you are to have a formal human resources complaint process. Your employee might approach their manager or you, the owner, saying that a coworker is making them uncomfortable, making harassing comments, or touching them in a way they find sexual or inappropriate. They could even simply ask the person to stop in a group meeting. This is your opportunity as a business-owner to step in, resolve the conflict, and avoid a workplace harassment complaint. This is where conflict resolution techniques come in.

Understanding the root of the workplace conflict is a major step in resolution


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How Can Conflict Resolution Help?

Conflict resolution is a process where employees, their supervisors, and a professional consultant, come together to identify the underlying cause of workplace conflict. The facilitator in conflict resolution helps employees get to the core of the conflict and then guides them to a settlement of those issues. When successful, conflict resolution accomplishes the same goals as anti-harassment laws: it stops the unwanted conflict and makes sure it doesn’t come back.

Effective conflict resolution paired with anti-harassment training, can help employees understand how their actions make their coworkers feel and why their behavior choices are inappropriate. It goes beyond rules that would prevent harassment. Instead, it brings coworkers together and helps them to understand the reasons behind each other’s actions and the consequences of those actions.

Conflict resolution won’t necessarily be enough to respond to all workplace harassment complaints. Sometimes an employee’s actions are simply over the line and require discipline. However, effective communication and proactive engagement in the face of less severe forms of discrimination and harassment can help bring coworkers together, avoid legal complaints, and remove conflict from the workplace. When conflict resolution is part of office culture, it can even prevent complaints of harassment before they start.


David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience helping employees and companies resolve workplace disputes. Through facilitated conflict resolution, David helps small and medium-sized businesses respond to internal workplace harassment complaints and reduce conflict in their workplaces. Contact us to meet with David to move toward conflict resolution today.