Dealing with Difficult People: Harassment in the Workplace
By Mike Martin
We Don’t Have a Problem
Some people like to think that there is no harassment in their workplace because no one has ever complained about it. But just because no one has brought it forward doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The fact is that there are very few workplaces without some form of harassment or bullying and those suffering from this form of abuse may have a number of reasons why they do not want to bring this matter forward. This includes being afraid of retaliation, embarrassment or even losing their job. Most importantly they may feel that they won’t be believed, especially if the harassment is being done by their boss or supervisor. The fact of the matter is that harassment exists and every employer should have a proactive plan to deal with this issue.
Harassment can have moral, legal and financial impacts on an employer. Morally every employer should want the safest and healthiest working environment for its employees and legally an employer could be liable for damages under federal and provincial human rights legislation if they become aware of harassment and do nothing to stop or prevent it. But harassment also has a financial impact on the organization’s bottom line through loss of time by an employee who is being harassed, a reduction in productivity by the individual or their section, or the cost of replacing good employees who resign because they feel they are being abused in the workplace.
The first step that any employer should take is to develop and maintain an anti-harassment policy for their workplace. Educating all employees, managers and supervisors about harassment will not only create a safer workplace it will encourage employees to take responsibilities for their own actions and help them recognize the types of behavior that could classify as harassment. This also creates an openness for people who are being harassed to come forward with their complaints so that they can be dealt with in a fair and transparent manner.
There are many different definitions of harassment but the Canadian Human Rights Commission categorizes harassment as occurring in three main areas: unwelcome behaviour that demeans, humiliates, or embarrasses; unwanted sexual behavior; or abuse of authority.
Demeaning, humiliating or embarrassing a person includes actions like touching or pushing, comments like jokes or name-calling, or displays like posters or cartoons. There are also prohibitions on harassment related to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability, pardoned conviction, or sexual orientation covered under various pieces of human rights legislation. Disrespectful behaviour which is sometimes called “personal” harassment is not covered under legislation but some employers do choose to include this in their anti-harassment policy.
Unwanted sexual behaviour is probably better known as sexual harassment and it includes offensive or humiliating behaviour that is related to a person’s sex and sexual behaviour that creates an intimidating or hostile workplace. Sexual harassment can also occur when these behaviours could create a situation where a person thought that there were sexual conditions attached to their employment. There are a wide range of behaviours that might be classified as sexual harassment and they include asking questions about an employee’s sex life, commenting on someone’s sexual attractiveness, persisting in asking someone out when they have refused or displaying posters or pictures of a sexual nature.
Harassment under the abuse of authority category can occur when someone uses their authority to unreasonably interfere with another employee or that employee’s job. It might include actions like humiliation, threats or intimidation. It is important to note that this does not include the regular and normal managerial activities of evaluations, discipline and counseling. Abuse of authority is not covered under human rights legislation unless it involves one of the prohibited grounds. Some employers do however choose to include this issue in their anti-harassment policy.
Where Do We Begin?
The first step to creating a safer and harassment-free workplace is for the employer to take the lead in creating an environment where all employees know that harassment will not be tolerated and that employees feel safe in bringing forward their complaints and concerns. Secondly, everyone in the organization needs to know the consequences of harassment and what to do if they become aware of a harassment situation. Thirdly, there needs to be a training and awareness program for all staff, especially managers and supervisors to maintain the safe working environment.
Developing your own policy on harassment is also an important step because it clearly shows your employee group that you are serious about this issue and that they should take it seriously as well. The policy should have an opening statement that simply says that you as the employer will not tolerate harassment or harassing behaviour. It should also include an explanation of what harassment is and provide some examples do that people understand what you mean. Finally it should set out the process for making a complaint and how complaints will be reviewed and dealt with.
Involving all employees in developing the policy or providing comments on a draft policy is a good way to increase employee awareness of the issue and build employee commitment to the policy. This includes the management team and all supervisors who will later be tasked with applying the policy fairly regardless of who is involved in any harassment complaint. To facilitate this and create even greater employee buy-in the policy should make perfectly clear that all employees from the mailroom to the executive boardroom will be covered under this policy and that there will be no exceptions to this rule.
Education and Awareness
Once the policy is completed it should be widely circulated and supported by a communications and education strategy that ensures that all employees are fully aware of the new policy. This can include orientation sessions, posters, brochures and training sessions. All new employees should receive a copy of the policy as part of their introduction to the organization.
Managers and supervisors, and those employees who are designated to deal with complaints under the policy will need special attention and training so that they understand their responsibility for handling all complaints which arise. It is very important is to support the management team as they come up the learning curve on this issue.
Managers should be trained to take a leadership role in creating a safer workplace by not tolerating any harassing behaviour in their area of responsibility and in making an early identification of harassment in the workplace. The earlier a problem can be identified the faster it can be resolved.
It is also important that those who are chosen as anti-harassment investigators or mediators should be seen by the employee group as being as fair and unbiased as possible because of the role that they will be asked to play. Anti-harassment investigators or mediators will need specialized training in how to receive process and resolve complaints. How they handle complaints may determine the ultimate success or failure of your anti-harassment policy.
Monitoring Your Progress
As your policy is being implemented there will lots of questions raised about what is or isn’t harassment and someone on staff will need to respond quickly and accurately to these concerns. You may need to consider an outside resource or consultant to assist in this area. Some organizations and companies also outsource their entire harassment investigation process to a third party to ensure fairness, confidentiality and compliance with the policy.
There is also a need to periodically monitor and review your anti-harassment policy and program to ensure that it is working effectively and meeting your goals. This can be accomplished by reviewing complaints received and their resolution rate as well as by consulting with the management team. The whole staff group needs to be asked for their opinion about how well they think the process is going and this can be done through surveys and focus groups in the workplace.
Remember that as an employer you are legally responsible for actions that take place within your workplace. If a case of harassment by one of your employees makes it way to court they may ask you to prove that you did everything possible to prevent the harassment from occurring and dealt with it properly once you became aware of the situation.
You may never eliminate harassment from your workplace but if you follow these steps you will go a long ways to protecting your employees and your entire organization.
Mike Martin is a freelance writer and consultant specializing in workplace wellness and conflict resolution. He is the author of “Change the Things You Can” (Dealing with Difficult People). For more information about Mike please visit: