Preventing Workplace Harassment –Are we missing something?

Preventing workplace harassment has been a topic of discussion for many years. How are we doing and how do we measure? Do employees believe there is less harassment in the workplace due to prevention efforts? Statistics show that 61% of people contend harassment/ bullying in the workplace is current and on-going.

Harassment claims associated with discrimination continue with a rising up/down trend and can be credited with the rise in retaliation claims. So I ask —what can we do better in our efforts to restrain harassment in the workplace? Are there opportunities for developing skills that could really increase inclusiveness and curb harassment?

Harassment prevention is important. EEOC advises that prevention is the best tool for the elimination of sexual harassment / harassment and encourages employers to take all steps necessary to prevent harassment from occurring. They identify such measures in their guidelines [29 C.F.R §1604.11 (f)] (1990) as follows:

  • Affirmatively raise the subject
  • Express strong disapproval
  • Develop appropriate sanctions
  • Inform employees of their right to raise and how to raise the issue of harassment under Title VII, and,
  • Develop methods to sensitize all concerned.
So what are employers doing for prevention?

In my experience, as well as discussions through professional networks, the many legal presentations and a review of the literature, there appear to be a few things that stand out.

  • Employers are writing HR policies that define what is considered harassment in the workplace and defining the steps to take action if an employee believes their civil rights are violated.
  • Employers are providing the classroom and/or e-learning training on Harassment Prevention in the workplace for leaders.
  • Employers are providing Diversity training as a means of sensitizing all concerned.
  • Larger organizations have EEO Managers dedicated to addressing discriminatory issues and Diversity Managers dedicated to developing methods for sensitizing all concerned.
So what is the problem?

It appears the effort is being made by many employers to create a harassment-free work environment. Are employers more concerned with staying out of trouble with EEOC –or creating a work environment where respectful relationships are part of the demonstrated culture at all levels? Clearly, many employers are making the effort, but things can sometimes get in the way –like the business of the day.

I ask –can we change the paradigm for a minute and look through a different lens or an added lens? For many, the lens being used is a great beginning. However, is the lens clouded when the efforts are focused on staying out of trouble with EEOC by training leaders on what not to do and how to watch for employees doing things they should not do? What if we started to look through a lens that focuses on what leaders and employees should/can do to create an inclusive and engaging environment –one that encourages and supports open and honest communication for navigating through conflict resulting from differences? How would that look? Would employees speak up when they are hurt and listen when they are told they are the perpetrator?

Maybe we can start by:

  • Ensuring all employees receive accurate information on how to define and recognize illegal harassment in the workplace –and know even if the behavior is not illegal, disrespectful is not tolerated either.
  • Secondly, empowering employees with the skills to navigate through a harassing situation. Employees are advised that the first step in stopping harassment is to let the alleged harasser know their behavior is not welcome and to stop. This sounds like a simple step but one that is difficult for many when the harasser is a senior or “perceived senior” person of power or influence –or if the employee is concerned for their physical or emotional safety.
  • Thirdly, ensuring that leadership is supportive of employees who demonstrate open, honest and candid conversations in the workplace in efforts to stop the harassment. Leadership must be willing to make everyone at every level accountable for uninvited behaviors that are deemed annoying and possibly illegal –and open to feedback when provided. Employees have to believe and trust that they will not see repercussions from expressing discomfort with the “unwelcome” behaviors of peers or leaders at every level.

Organizations are often accustomed to using checklists to confirm compliance with various regulations –including rules regarding discrimination and anti-harassment. When addressing the diversity of human behavior, things can be a little more complicated. Maybe it’s time to try a different lens or add a new filter. …Just saying.