Anywhere people work together conflict is inevitable. As a manager you must work to promote healthy associate relationships and deal with conflict in a constructive manner. Harassment in the workplace is a serious issue every manager should educate themselves on. Sooner or later you will deal with it.
Sometimes what starts as poking fun or seemingly innocent banter between associates can grow into a conflict. Words are exchanged, perhaps provocations occur. Now as a manager you are faced with dealing with harassment in the workplace.
What is Harassment?
So what constitutes harassment? Harassment is any improper conduct by an individual, that is directed at and offensive to another person or persons in the workplace, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises any objectionable act, comment or display that demeans, belittles, or causes personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat.
- Serious or repeated rude, degrading, or offensive remarks such as teasing about a person’s physical characteristics or appearance, put-downs or insults.
- Displaying sexist, racist or other offensive pictures, posters, or sending e-mails containing such material.
- Repeatedly singling out an employee for meaningless or dirty jobs that are not part of their normal duties.
- Threats, intimidation or retaliation against an employee, including one who has expressed concerns about perceived unethical or illegal workplace behaviors.
- Unwelcome social invitations, with sexual overtones or flirting, with a subordinate.
- Unwelcome sexual advances.
Often the person being harassed does not say anything. They may laugh at a joke or act as if what is said or done does not bother them, when in fact it does. Over time the toll this takes on an associate builds. They may begin performing poorly at their job. They may start calling in sick or being late for work. In their mind the workplace has become something they dread or want to avoid.
In this manner you may think you are dealing with a performance issue, when in fact the root cause is the associate feels they are being harassed. As with any performance issue you should sit down in private and discuss the issue. As part of any performance issue you should throw out the question if they have an issues with their co-workers.
Proactive Harassment Prevention
The best approach to preventing harassment in the workplace is to be proactive. Don’t wait until an incident occurs. Make sure all associates are well aware of company policies and federal laws. Many associates may not realize what they are doing can be considered harassment.
When you hear about or notice behavior that could be seen as harassment hold a meeting with all associates. Do not single out an instance or a person, but merely read relevant parts of your harassment policy. This act alone will usually stop such behavior. Associates will know you are aware and that you take such behavior seriously.
When an off-color or disparaging remark is made by an associate address it by telling them that is not appropriate in the workplace. If it continues have a private discussion with the associate about the harassment policy and let them know you have zero tolerance for such behavior.
The root of harassment is a lack of respect. One of the best ways to promote respect among associates is to set a good example and promote professionalism. While you may not be able to change the views or opinions of others, you can demand that they be kept out of the workplace.
What to Do When Harassment Occurs
Never ignore a complaint about harassment. You could be held liable for not taking prompt action. Don’t think the problem will just go away. Harassment must be dealt with immediately to protect yourself, the company and the workplace environment.
- When someone comes to you with a complaint about harassment take the time right then to sit down with them and discuss the issue in private.
- Never address or speak with an associate about any claims of harassment in public. Take them to a private place where nobody can be seen or heard. If you have a supervisor or another manager you may want them to attend. A witness to a harassment discussion may be useful if down the road if what is discussed is disputed.
- Do not try and lead the discussion. Let the associate give a complete narrative of what happened and do not interrupt them.
- Take notes on everything the associate says, do not rely on your memory. Do not editorialize or otherwise add your own comments in the notes. They can become legal documents.
- When the associate is done look over your notes and look for holes in the details you need to fill in. Be careful in your questioning. You only want to ask questions that will fully document the incident. Thank them for coming to you and let them know the issue will be addressed. Tell them should any further harassment occur they should come to you immediately.
- If your company has a human resources department you should consult with them right away. They are the experts in the field and you should always take advantage of their expertise when dealing with harassment issues.