Effective October 1, 2019, Maryland employers will all be responsible for addressing sexual and other illegal forms of harassment in the workplace.
The new law expands coverage for people complaining of illegal harassment in two important ways:
First of all, independent contractors will now be subject to the law’s protections. In addition to people on staff who are classified as independent contractors, an employer may have independent contractors on site as bookkeepers, tech consultants, or lawn care workers, for example. But if an employee harasses one of those people, who complains, the employer needs to address the situation and prevent its recurrence.
Second, employers with at least one employee are now subject to the law’s reach. For many years, employers with fewer than 15 employees have been exempt from employment discrimination laws in the state and federal system. (Some of our counties have lower thresholds.) Small employers may wish to have an independent human resources professional on-call for such situations.
Finally, employees or independent contractors who complain of harassment have a longer time period to file a charge of discrimination (now two years instead of six months), and file suit (three years instead of two).
Employers are well-advised to plan for October 1st’s changes. A key defense to charges of harassment consists of the presence of an effective complaint procedure, and effective responses to cure the problem.
If an employee makes a complaint of harassment based on one of the protected categories listed above, an independent workplace investigation may be called for. It should be considered if there is no human resources department; if the HR department does not have authority to take action against the alleged harasser (for example, a senior vice president), or if the accused harasser is part of the HR department. Other situations include repeated complaints against the same person, such that the employer’s good faith or lack of negligence is in question.