Understanding and Addressing Harassment in the Workplace

Matt Verdecchia | The TriStater

Harassment can have a detrimental effect in the workplace, yet identifying what exactly comprises harassment and distinguishing it from unprofessional disrespect can create a challenge for organizations.

It is important to remember that we work in the environment we create and tolerate. Every employee has the right to work in a respectful workplace. Every employee therefore has the responsibility to help create and maintain that culture. This applies at every level of the organization.

While easy to understand, this concept can sometimes be tough to put into practice. It is much easier to look away from inappropriate, disrespectful and potentially harassing behavior, rub a rabbit’s foot, and pray it goes away. With this approach, we do not have to get past our own barriers and can avoid confronting this behavior, setting an appropriate example, enforcing policies, and looking like the “bad guy, party pooper, goodie two-shoe leader,” etc. However, by doing so, we enable the behavior, we give it legs, essentially giving the perpetrator unspoken permission to continue.

This all may sound a tad harsh, but in today’s busy environment, it is often easier to ignore inappropriate behavior than to supportively confront and correct it. While you may disagree on this point, what remains important is reducing risk for your organization. Your organization may employ managers and supervisors who do not want to deal with this issue, or have never been trained and do not know how to deal with this issue – either way they will be held accountable for addressing potential incidents.

Although harassing behavior is obviously a major issue, for organizations, another significant problem is how leadership chooses to deal (or not deal) with the presenting behavior, person, department, or even corporate culture.

The culture of an organization can have a major impact on tolerance and treatment of harassment and other similar behaviors. Keep in mind that not everything someone does or says to someone else is “harassment.” In fact, it likely isn’t. However, it may be disrespectful. There is no law that states “I have to respect you.” This behavior may constitute bullying, and there is also no law that states “I cannot bully you.” Although neither disrespect nor bullying are technically harassment or illegal, this does not mean these behaviors should be condoned or considered appropriate in your company’s culture.

This reinforces the importance of having policies and procedures in place to maintain a safe, productive work environment, including a code of conduct or ethics policy to help manage behavior and productivity. So even though the behavior is not illegal, it likely goes against company policy and is therefore subject to discipline. Managers, supervisors, and others in leadership roles are responsible for managing employee behavior and performance, including creating, maintaining and reinforcing the company culture.

Within the workplace, diversity and our differences contribute positively to the company culture. However, these same differences can also impact individual employee behavior. Even if the behavior is not considered harassment (i.e., against protected classes), it is important to remember that people have different levels of tolerance or perspective on what is appropriate or “reasonable,” and finding a consensus can be difficult. I believe in flexibility – a willingness to bend, stretch, and lean. It is in most people’s power to choose to acclimate to an organizational environment/culture. We hire not only for skills but for cultural adaptability. When incidents arise, it is possible to professionally address these issues and behaviors. If they persist, we have policy to assist and guide us as to a reasonable course of action. But when it comes to harassment – that stepping over the line between disrespectful, out-of-bounds behavior and into the realm of illegal harassment – we must be fair, objective, consistent, prompt, and “reasonable” in the enforcement of the policy, regardless of who the offending person is and what position they hold. Appropriately addressing these incidents in a timely manner will have a positive impact on company culture while mitigating risk for the organization. Remember: a respectful work environment is a safer work environment.