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Workplace harassment: Out of the woods and back at work

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Tiger Woods is returning to work this week to play in the Masters. His return to golf is predicted to bring an enormous boost to television ratings with everyone curious as to just what the reception will be like and how he will fare under the pressure.

There are certainly parallels to a traditional workplace, when employees return after a significantly difficult life event – perhaps the death of a loved one or a serious illness. Many employers access the advice of experts in such a case to help support the employee in his or her transition back to work.

However, the transition becomes that much more complex when the employee has been absent from work for reasons of which their co-workers are aware and which they may view negatively – such as a criminal investigation or charges, marital infidelity, or even a workplace dispute in which their co-workers have been involved. The good news is that these are rare occurrences, but the bad news is that they are a legal hornet’s nest. If the employer does not take proactive steps to ensure the employee’s safe return to work, the potential for the employee to be on the receiving end of ridicule and even workplace harassment is extremely high, leaving the employer exposed to potential legal liability.

Well before the employee’s return, employers would be wise to review their workplace harassment policies and ensure that they are up-to-date and encompass situations which could occur upon the employee’s return to work. The policies should also clearly set out a process which employees can follow in the event that they encounter a problem at work. Reminding employees of the existence of the policy too close to the employee’s return may draw unwanted attention to the employee, but certainly the employee could be provided with a copy and assured upon his or her return that the employer strives to ensure that all employees in the workplace are able to work in a discrimination and harassment-free environment. Lastly, the employer would be wise to monitor the situation carefully for a period of time. Ensuring that certain key management and supervisory personnel are aware of the potential for problems, while monitoring the situation discretely is also wise, as is doing a regular check-in with the employee to ensure that the transition back to work has been smooth.

And for this week, many of us will have our eyes set on Augusta to see how Tiger’s co-workers respond to him when he returns to work.

Christine Thomlinson