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Why harassment persists and how to eliminate it

January 18, 2023

We have been talking about workplace harassment for years. Our firm started educating employers about workplace bullying more than 20 years ago. And society has loudly voiced it’s had enough. Yet it persists. Why?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission[i] gathered a task force to find out the answers. Its 2016 report shines a bright light on the risk factors and contributors to workplace harassment and guides organizations in combatting it and bringing it to an end.

The task force found:

  • Persistent problem – Workplace harassment remains a persistent problem that is commonly unreported
  • Big costs – Workplace harassment comes at a large cost impacting employees’ psychological and physical well-being and the organization’s bottom line with hits to productivity, absenteeism, turnover, legal liability and more
  • It starts at the top – Organizational culture and holding people accountable is critical to preventing and combatting harassment
  • Typical training doesn’t work – Training needs to be engaging, interactive, tailored to the particular workplace and focused first on training leadership to act
  • “It’s on us” – Everybody has a role to play and has power to be an upstander instead of a passive bystander to make a difference

What are some of the risk factors and what can your organization do about them?

  • Lack of diversity – Employees who are in the minority because they are different than others in the group can feel and may be vulnerable to pressure or being targeted. Lack of diversity can be related to sex, race, sexual orientation or any other characteristic. Combat it by increasing diversity in each work group and the organization overall.
  • Employees who don’t conform – When employees resist conforming to disrespectful or unprofessional workplace norms like gossip, ostracizing, or crude or vulgar humour, they are susceptible to harassment. Combat it by nurturing and modelling a top-down culture of civility and respect.
  • Cultural or language differences – Cultural backgrounds and differences in language may leave employees less knowledgeable about acceptable workplace norms and laws. It can also lead to words and actions being misconstrued. And employees unaware of their rights are at risk of being exploited. Combat it by properly training all employees about workplace harassment and psychological and unconscious biases.
  • Social discord – We have had our fair share of issues in society to disagree about in recent years. Sometimes employees bring these heated and impassioned debates into the workplace. It can be viewed as more acceptable because of the discord outside of work and contribute to harassment inside of work. Combat it by identifying current contentious hot topics and proactively remind employees of expectations for respectful workplace conversation and engagement.
  • Young workers – Young employees can be unaware of workplace norms and laws, and more likely to conform and feel intimidated to speak up. This can leave them vulnerable to abuse and harassment. Combat it by providing harassment training to all new, young employees and newly promoted young employees with a focus on issues they may encounter. And train supervisors of young employees to identify and deal with these issues.
  • High value employees – Organizations can be reluctant to hold high value employees accountable. And some high value employees think they are exempt from the rules. Combat it by applying rules and accountability consistently regardless of rank.
  • Power disparities – Employees in positions of power sometimes abuse it. And lower ranking employees may feel powerless or fear retaliation if they speak up. They may also be less knowledgeable about the avenues available to seek help. Combat it by uniformly enforcing rules and accountability and educating all employees on resolution and complaint procedures.
  • Client service or satisfaction – Workplaces that tie compensation to client service or satisfaction can drive employees to tolerate harassment from clients or customers to make the sale or earn a tip. Combat it by having no tolerance for disrespectful or harassing conduct at the hands of these third parties.
  • Monotonous or idle time – When employees are bored or have too much time on their hands, they sometimes use it to vent frustration or think up silly and often unprofessional or disrespectful things to do. Combat it by varying job tasks and reducing idle time if possible, or at least keeping a more vigilant eye on what employees are doing in their boredom or downtime.
  • Isolated workplaces – Workplaces where no one else is around create opportunities for harassment to go unnoticed. But no witnesses doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Combat it by reducing isolated work environments and increasing visibility of and communication with them, connecting isolated workers to each other virtually or in-person, and ensuring workers are aware of complaint procedures.
  • Decentralized workplaces – Managers in geographically dispersed workplaces may be more prone to unprofessional behaviour with no accountability, or be unaware of acceptable workplace norms. Or they may be hesitant to call head office for guidance in addressing others’ unprofessional conduct. Combat it by ensuring geographically diverse employees and managers are properly trained about their rights and obligations about harassment, and keep the lines of communication flowing so they have a consistent connection to the organization.

For more ideas, see the EEOC’s checklists[ii] and promising practices for preventing harassment[iii]. Individually we can each make a difference. Together, we can end harassment.