How to Prevent Harassment in the Workplace

Workplace harassment is bad for business, can have significant legal consequences, and is just plain wrong. Whether you’re the big boss or just got hired, you have an obligation to prevent and stop harassment. This article starts by listing important measures to take if you’re in a leadership position, then lists strategies that any and every worker should take to combat this workplace plague.

Steps

Method 1 of 10: Set clear policies that follow the law.

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Don’t just assume people know what is and is not harassment. If you’re in a leadership position that involves setting harassment policies, start by making sure that they follow the laws in the place where you do business. When drawing up your specific policies, use clear language to reduce “gray areas” and potential misinterpretations. Here, for example, is a Canadian governmental definition of workplace harassment:

  • “Workplace harassment is improper conduct by an individual, that is directed at and offensive to another individual in the workplace, including at any event or any location related to work, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises objectionable act(s), comment(s) or display(s) that demean, belittle, or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat.… Harassment is normally a series of incidents but can be one severe incident which has a lasting impact on the individual.”

Method 2 of 10: Make sure everyone understands the policies.

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Educate workers with informational, interactive tools. Yes, holding a workplace harassment meeting may sound like a plot point from an episode of The Office. However, there are ways to inform and educate your workforce about harassment policies without completely boring them to death! Most importantly, make the process interactive instead of just sending out a memo or relying on a PowerPoint presentation or video.

  • Lay out the policies in writing and in detail, but also make sure to provide ample opportunities for workers to ask questions—both in group settings and individually.
  • Consider breaking up the process into multiple, shorter components instead of doing a single marathon training session.
  • Confirm that everyone understands the policies, potentially by signing their name to a document.

Method 3 of 10: Lay out procedures for reporting harassment.

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Follow the law and company policies, but also limit the red tape. Spell out clear reporting procedures and make sure everyone knows them. Make things as uncomplicated as possible by letting people know who they can go to and how they can make a complaint. Don’t make employees “jump through hoops” in order to report harassment.

  • For example, spell out that workers should put their harassment complaints in writing and present it to their HR representative. At the same time, make it clear that all reports of harassment will be taken seriously, regardless of the official procedures. For example, if an employee reports harassment verbally to their supervisor instead in writing to HR, clarify that this report won’t be ignored.

Method 4 of 10: Make your disciplinary process clear but adaptable.

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Walk the fine line between being too rigid and too flexible. Disciplinary action related to harassment should be corrective (not punitive), reasonable, and proportional. Set clear guidelines for the types of corrective action that can be expected, but also make it clear that each situation will be considered individually.

  • Corrective actions might start with verbal warnings and move up to formal reprimands, training sessions, suspensions, transfers, and terminations as warranted.

Method 5 of 10: Ensure that the complaint-maker isn’t punished.

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Watch out for not only direct punishments, but indirect ones as well. It seems obvious that you should protect the complaint-maker from direct sanctions or any kind or recriminations due to a legitimate complaint. But also make sure that they aren’t indirectly punished by the corrective actions that are directed toward the harasser. This is one of the reasons why flexibility in your response is so important.

  • For example, suspending the harasser as your blanket approach could end up punishing the complaint-maker by dramatically increasing their workload. In this case, transferring the harasser and replacing them with another team member might be more appropriate.
  • As another example, making the entire workforce go through an extended workplace harassment “refresher course” might lead other employees to blame the complaint-maker for it. Instead, you might have the offender go through specific training and carry out company-wide refresher courses on a regular schedule that isn’t tied to any particular complaint.

Method 6 of 10: Model respectful workplace behavior.

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Do your part to build a culture of respect in your workplace. Whether you’re the CEO or an office temp, you can and should show others that harassment is unacceptable by treating them with compassion and understanding yourself. Even when disagreements and difficulties arise, remind yourself to disagree respectfully instead of engaging in personal attacks. Think carefully before making comments or jokes that might be offensive. Be supportive and understanding of those around you.

  • No, you can’t prevent all harassment through your own actions, but you can help create a workplace culture that values mutual respect.

Method 7 of 10: Confront harassment that you witness.

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Whether or not you’re the target, call out harassment immediately. Even if you’re not the one being harassed, don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s “not my problem” or that “someone else will deal with it.” Confront the harasser as soon as possible and be firm but calm with them. Be clear and specific about the inappropriate behavior.

  • For example: “Tom, that joke about Anne’s appearance was disrespectful and inappropriate. It’s extremely offensive to her and damaging to all of us when that type of behavior goes on in this office.”
  • Or: “That comment about my religious beliefs was way over the line, Pat. I deserve—and we all deserve—a workplace free of harassment like that.”

Method 8 of 10: Watch carefully for signs of problems.

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Harassment can be subtle instead of obvious. You won’t always catch the harasser in the act of making a crude joke or hurtful comment, and the target of the harassment won’t always report it. But you can still watch for signs within the workplace culture that indicate problems. Signs like the following can indicate ongoing workplace harassment:

  • Increased negativity or even hostility in the workplace.
  • Decreased communication and cooperation among workers.
  • The development of workplace cliques.
  • Increased complaints about issues that may not be directly related to harassment.
  • New or worsening “turf wars” among individuals or groups.

Method 9 of 10: Act as a mediator to resolve issues.

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Assume this role only when it’s appropriate and may be helpful. Significant and/or ongoing harassment should always be reported and go through the proper channels. In isolated cases, however, you might be able to serve as a third-party mediator and resolve the problem. Always make sure that this is what the person being harassed wants, though, and that you support them strongly.

  • Say, for example, you saw your co-worker Anne being subjected to inappropriate teasing by your other co-worker Tom. You might pull Anne aside and ask her if she’d like you to help resolve the issue. If this is what she wants, you can then facilitate a discussion between Tom and Anne that identifies the inappropriate behavior and ensures it’s not repeated.
  • Keep in mind that Anne has every right to say “no” to your offer and to report the harassment instead.

Method 10 of 10: Offer your support.

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Your support can range from encouragement to a witness statement. If a co-worker confides in you that they’re being harassed, let them know that it isn’t their fault and that it shouldn’t be allowed to continue. Encourage them to make an official complaint when appropriate, and offer to co-file the complaint or make a witness statement if you’ve actually seen the harassment take place.

  • Targets of workplace harassment often feel isolated and unsupported. Do your part to make sure that individuals in this situation can feel like they have someone on their side.
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