Question:  What is one of the best ways to avoid workplace lawsuits?

Answer:  The answer is simple yet elusive in some workplaces:  Be nice.

Whether you are an employer or an employee, kindness and civility can defuse and often prevent workplace disputes that may otherwise escalate to litigation.  The Golden Rule that you learned in elementary school is the maxim to live by and to help avoid workplace litigation.  Treat others the way you want to be treated.  While you do not need to be best friends with or even like everyone you work with, you should interact with others in a kind and respectful manner in the workplace and require your employees to do the same.  Below are a few examples of how employers can help foster a workplace where disputes can be resolved by respectful communication and action rather than litigation.

Be Respectful and Open in Daily Interactions

In creating a productive workplace, it is important to implement a respectful workplace policy requiring all employees to work cooperatively with one another, and add to your code of conduct that all employees must be professional and respectful in their interactions at work. You may have heard the adage that employees quit managers, not companies.  It could also be said that employees sue managers, not companies.  While neither of these statements rings true in every situation, employees are more likely to bring a workplace grievance to the attention of their supervisor rather than an attorney when employees feel that management treats them with respect and is open to their concerns.  Moreover, supervisors and other managers who show respect and civility in daily interactions with others are less likely to be accused of harassment or retaliatory actions.

Beyond setting a positive example with their own actions, those in management positions must address inappropriate behavior that affects the workplace, both by other employees (supervisors and non-supervisors alike) and by non-employees, such a customer or vendor.  Appropriate policy implementation and training are critical tools for employers, but they are no substitute for common courtesy and respect in everyday interactions. Employers should be particularly mindful to not lose this sense of courtesy while conducting terminations, as an embarrassing or terse termination can quickly motivate an employee to explore legal claims.

Avoid and Address Workplace Gossip

Rumors and gossip can lead to tension in the workplace potentially damaging relationships, lowering morale, and decreasing productivity.  Managers should avoid participating in or condoning gossip, which could be alleged as an act of harassment or workplace bullying.  Supervisors may also have a duty to investigate the underlying complaint or rumor.  There may be legitimate concerns in rumors that can be addressed by management before they escalate into a lawsuit.  Training staff to effectively and respectfully communicate with one another to resolve problems will also help prevent and resolve conflicts that could lead to litigation.  Employers should keep in mind that workplace policies prohibiting gossip should not be overly broad, as they could be interpreted as inappropriately restricting the rights of employees to discuss wages, hours, and working conditions.

Whether you are an employer or an employee, being a jerk at work is never a good idea.  Erring on the side of kindness in your daily interactions will reduce your chances of being drawn into a workplace lawsuit, and will likely make your workday more enjoyable.