Workplace harassment is an ailment many businesses face worldwide. One of the things that truly separates a healthy workplace culture from a toxic one is the number of harassment cases it experiences over a period of time.
Whereas cases of bullying hide away in the corners of a toxic culture, a healthy culture takes proactive steps to erase these instances before they transform into major catastrophes.
Federal and state laws protect workers from harassment based on color, race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, disability, age, and more. In the age of social media, any news of harassment spreads like wildfire, which can damage an organization beyond recovery.
On the other hand, workplaces that take cases of harassment seriously often end up creating a healthy environment where employees, leaders, customers, and the overall organization enjoy consistent growth and productivity.
Here, we will define what constitutes sexual harassment, and how organizations can build a solid reporting system to mitigate it.
Understanding Workplace Harassment
Workplace harassment, according to The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) includes, “offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or picture, and interference with work performance.”
Workplace harassment can take place in many circumstances. The perpetrator could be a co-worker, a supervisor, a manager, an agent of the employer, or even a non-employee. Anyone (not just the person harassed) negatively impacted by offensive conduct experiences harassment.
Workplace bullying is often a serious issue with several gray areas, which is why organizations must deploy solid systems to tackle these issues promptly. This must be done by keeping instances of retaliation in mind. In 2022, the number of discrimination charges in the U.S. summed up to over 55.8% (or 37,632). Businesses committed to mitigating workplace harassment must deploy systems that ensure:
- Those who face harassment mustn’t hesitate to speak up
- Whistleblowers must be protected from retaliation
Workplace harassment not only creates a toxic workplace culture but also causes heavy reputational, financial, and legal losses to businesses. Understanding how harassment unfolds, investigating it promptly and efficiently, and taking appropriate steps to ensure the same instances don’t repeat are vital to erasing these issues.
Recognizing the Signs: Types of Workplace Harassment
The first step to keep workplace harassment at bay starts with recognizing it first. Here are the five most common forms of harassment:
Physical harassment occurs in many forms – from subtle unwanted gestures like touching a coworker’s skin, hair, or face to more serious cases like damaging personal property or physical assault. Worldwide, one out of ten people experienced physical harassment such as spitting, hitting, and restraining. Even if a victim doesn’t physically get hurt, unwanted advances are still considered physical harassment.
Verbal harassment occurs in the form of inappropriate jokes about someone, cursing, yelling, and more. This can negatively impact the victim and result in outcomes like anxiety and depression.
According to Gallup, “18% of employed people, representing almost 590 million workers,” experienced psychological harassment in their working lives. Some examples of psychological harassment include making impossible demands from an employee, taking credit for someone’s idea, and making a worker perform demeaning tasks.
While sexual harassment, as a definition, may seem quite straightforward, it is not always the case. In many cases, it appears as a “mild banter” that comes with sexual tones or gestures, leaving a massive gray area. This is why employees and businesses must pay attention to and report these incidents.
Posting threats, mocking a coworker by creating a webpage about them, making false allegations online, and stalking are a few of the many forms of digital harassment. Fortunately, these cases are easier to document and prove.
Steps to Report and Mitigate Workplace Harassment
While detecting cases of workplace harassment is vital, ensuring the same situation doesn’t unfold again is equally important. Here’s how to report, investigate, and mitigate harassment in the workplace:
Know the Laws Related to Workplace Harassment
Federal, state, and local laws protect workers from workplace harassment. Some of the many laws workplace harassment violates include:
- The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
Leaders and employees must stay on top of these laws to both prevent and act against instances of bullying.
This is a critical step in investigating cases of workplace harassment. HR must start gathering evidence the moment a harassment report knocks at their door.
Create A Strong Workplace Harassment Policy
Your workplace harassment policy must include:
- Your business’s stance against harassment of any type
- A clear definition and examples of harassment
- The importance of maintaining a harassment-free workplace
- The steps your organization would take to mitigate these cases
Offer Protection for Whistleblowers
Most employees choose not to report cases of harassment due to the fear of retaliation. To avoid instances of retaliation and encourage workers to speak up, it’s important to:
- Establish anonymous reporting systems (such as an anonymous hotline)
- Establish a solid anti-retaliation policy
Stick to Facts
Managers must not jump to conclusions but focus on evidence to ensure fair judgment. Most businesses often team up with third-party professionals to create an unbiased environment for both the victim and the accused to put forth their points.
Train Leaders, Managers, and Employees
Educate your people on what constitutes workplace harassment, how to identify it, and why speaking up is so important by deploying engaging and interactive training. Remember, respectful workplace behavior starts from the top down. Senior leaders and managers must demonstrate good behavior for the rest of the workforce to follow suit.
Ensure Prompt Investigation
Quick and efficient investigation is critical once you receive a harassment report. The faster your organization acts, the higher your chances to resolve the incident and prevent it from repeating in the future.
Harassment can be debilitating for both your employees and your organization. It’s never too soon or too late to clear your workplace of harassment. Train your employees on how to recognize and report harassment, establish strong reporting systems and encourage people to do the right thing, protect your whistleblowers from retaliation by ensuring their anonymity, and finally, take quick and efficient steps to investigate and resolve these cases the moment they knock at your door.