Don’t underestimate conflicts that arise from harassment
One other session I attended at the 2010 Ontario HRPA conference was Andrew Lawson’s on Protecting your organization from the workplace bully. He made a couple of good points on the topic of workplace harassment that I would like to share with you.
Harassment happens before violence! You would think that this is simply logical thinking, but Andrew reported that most violent incidents happen because employers do not take complaints of harassment seriously. Employers often neglect to stop the harassing behaviour or prevent it from escalating to a dangerous or harmful situation.
Harassment covers a wide range of offensive behaviour. It is commonly understood as behaviour intended to disturb or upset. In the legal sense, it is behaviour which a person finds threatening or disturbing. This can be interpreted quite broadly.
To illustrate, gossiping may seem harmless at the beginning, but it can be destructive and can breed abuse as well as isolation and depression. In this way, it can become a harassing behaviour covered under Occupational Health and Safety violence and harassment prevention obligations.
However, you mustn’t label people too quickly. Employers have to take a report or complaint seriously and be willing to find out what is really happening; that is, they must uncover the intent behind the alleged harasser’s behaviour and the negative affect it has on the target of the behaviour or the workplace as a whole. Employers must investigate and identify the risk of harm from the behaviour by taking prompt, thorough and impartial action. Make sure you have a harasser or bully.
Employees also have a role to play. The employee who feels harassed or the employee witnessing the harassment has to practice respectful confrontation; they must be prepared to challenge inappropriate behaviour and take action to stop it. But proceed with caution; two wrongs don’t make a right. Employees mustn’t harass or bully back, or react violently in response.
Do tell the person with the harassing behaviour that the behaviour is unwelcome, inappropriate and must stop.
Mandatory reporting, investigation and training (communication skills among other things) are essential to identify and deal with harassing behaviours in the workplace.
Employers should always make and keep a record of complaints and investigations (whether the complaint is ruled valid or not). Information that must be recorded includes the names of the people involved, dates, the nature and frequency of incidents, actions taken, follow-up and monitoring information. All sensitive information should be treated confidentially and meet the requirements under privacy legislation and common law privacy rights.
Proven allegations of harassment should be treated as disciplinary offences. Take the necessary measures to control the situation, stop the harassment and prevent the risk of, or continued harm to, employees. Offer assistance and support and protect the victim.
Employers’ ultimate aim is to develop a culture in which everyone understand harassment is unacceptable and where individuals are confident enough to bring complaints without fear of ridicule or reprisal. Everybody needs to feel responsible for challenging all forms of harassment and for upholding personal dignity. Send a message from the top and empower HR so that they can act!
That is my two cents worth. Thanks Andrew for a great session. Comments are welcome!
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor