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Does over-sensitivity lead to harassment? The preventive value of respect

Respect Street Sign


“Excessive claims of workplace harassment are a sign that our society has become far too sensitive and it really needs to stop.” This is the message I received from workshop participants this week during a group discussion on the topic of the prevention of workplace harassment and discrimination.

“I get offended when someone refers to me as ‘dear’. I feel that it is condescending and even sexist.”

The above comment was expressed by one participant who was later mocked by some of the other participants for expressing this point of view.

“If that’s how a person was raised, particularly if they are older, you shouldn’t be offended by that. It’s a generational thing.

“Calling someone ‘dear’ is a term of affection; they don’t mean anything by it.”

“We have to stop being so over-sensitive.”

Another participant expressed surprise to have been given a quantity of alcohol as a prize in an office contest. This worker’s family doesn’t drink alcohol, and the worker wondered if this was appropriate in the workplace. The worker did not claim to have been offended and certainly did not claim to have been harassed.

Another participant responded by saying, “Just give the alcohol to someone who drinks. You don’t need to be so sensitive about it.”

I pointed out to the group that, as a recovering alcoholic, I am offended when someone assumes that everyone else enjoys alcohol and doesn’t have the courtesy to consider others before deciding to serve alcohol at a workplace function. I would be equally offended if I was allergic to peanuts or cologne and others used either of them without considering the needs of their colleagues first.

Does that mean that you are harassing a person when doing these things and that you should be sent home without pay?


But then the workshop conversation was not exactly about “harassing” per se. The conversation was about respect and about considering our attitudes and actions from the perspective of someone else.

I had asked people to share their experiences and feelings and to give examples of areas where they may be feeling disrespected in the workplace. I had intended to stimulate conversation; I very nearly started a war!

All of a sudden everyone was talking, some loudly, and expressing their various points of view. Mostly they were expressing frustration with the “over-sensitivity” of their co-workers.

I was shocked. Despite facilitating workshops on workplace discrimination and harassment prevention for as long as I have, I am always surprised by the pent-up frustration, and even anger, that participants display, when other participants talk about things they find offensive.

I dream of the day I hear a participant respond to colleagues’ comments by saying, “Your perspective is interesting; I never thought of it that way before.”

I would even be encouraged by something like, “I respect your point of view, but I see it differently. I guess we need to agree to disagree.”

“The starting point”, I say during the introduction of my workshops, “the starting point to workplace harassment prevention is mutual respect.”

It surprises me then to see some participants charge forward with their own agenda without regard, indeed without respect, for the perspectives of others.

This situation makes it clear that this workplace is definitely in need of this training!

How can we prevent the horrendous impact of workplace harassment when we have such a hard time listening to others without becoming so defensive?

The intent of Ontario’s Bill 168, the workplace violence and harassment provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Human Rights Code is to prevent, on one hand, disrespect for who and what we all are.

On the other hand, the intent of these instruments of law is to prevent stress, illness, lost time, injury and even death. Is that worth talking about?

Andrew Lawson

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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