Harassment: How To Stop It Before It Starts

By David Castillo Dominici
By David Castillo Dominici

Managers assume that harassment is no big deal for their employees.  Do you really know if harassment is an issue for your employees? Have you asked them? According to a recent survey, 48% of U.S. employees have either experienced or witnessed “abusive conduct” at work (27% have suffered abusive conduct at work; another 21% have witnessed it).

As a manager, you should be looking to help watch for and prevent harassment before it starts. A powerful prevention tool every manager has is the ability to talk with and listen to his or her employees. Some suggestions include:

  • Talk about respect and fair treatment at team meetings – you don’t have to over do it, just weave a couple minutes into a team meeting once a month.
  • Reward/recognize employees who do the right thing by speaking up or who contribute to creating a respectful culture.
  • Let employees take the initiative and share thoughts about how to improve the workplace culture.
  • Talk with employees one-to-one and ask them whether they think harassment is an issue in the workplace and the organization.

You’re probably reading that last suggestion with doubt. Instead of literally asking them, have a conversation with each employee every quarter (or so) about how things are going in general. Ask them:

  • How are you doing?
  • Are you enjoying your work?
  • How are the team dynamics – and are there any issues or concerns?
  • Have you seen or experienced anything that goes against our value of treating others with respect?

You need to be genuinely interested in hearing your employees’ responses and willing to take action; if you aren’t, asking questions will backfire.  Inaction in the face of problems can result in employee morale issues, resentment and – worse yet – potential legal liability.

Remember, your silence sends a strong message to your employees – “I don’t really want to hear about it.” Talking about your expectations makes the statement that harassment won’t be tolerated. So, as this year begins, take a different approach. Start a productive dialogue with your employees and aim to improve the culture where you work.

Q. An employee seems reluctant to talk about something that is bothering her; I think a client may be harassing her. What can I do to get her to open up?

A. When an employee is reluctant to speak up, you have a potential trust issue. Maybe she doesn’t feel like she can trust that you or the organization will respond properly. Maybe she fears retaliation if she does speak up. You can start by asking her why she is reluctant to share information. Be prepared to talk about our commitment to investigating, dealing with harassment and that we do not tolerate retaliation of any kind. And if that isn’t enough, be prepared to offer up the names of other resources (like HR – if she simply wants to talk with someone else. If that doesn’t work, reach out to Dube Consulting and let them know what is going on so they can reach out to the employee directly.

Q. I asked an employee how he was doing, and he said that a male coworker was sexually harassing him. I know the coworker, and I think the complaint is false. Am I still expected to look into it?

A. The short answer is “yes.” You need to take every complaint seriously and the organization needs to look into it. You cannot pre-judge a complaint or dismiss one without looking into it fairly. Creating trust with employees is hard; you must be willing to not only have a conversation about how they are being treated by coworkers, but you must also be willing to act when issues are surfaced. If the employee intentionally made a false complaint, the investigation will establish that and the employee will be disciplined. But, for now, let Dube Consulting know about the employee’s concerns so the organization can start an investigation. Failing to act will damage trust, morale and can lead to legal liability.

A special thank you to Navex for providing a big piece of the content.

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