Workplace Harassment: How to identify and Deal with it

A female worker being harassed
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Workplace harassment comes in many forms and can destroy the reputation of organizations if not addressed. Sadly, victims do not find the courage to report that they have been harassed. This could be due to the persons involved or the fear of being stigmatized.

The prevalence of workplace harassment in organizations leads to the creation of a toxic work environment which in turn reduces the productivity of both the victims and the organization. 

However, despite the recurrence of this demoralizing act, many individuals are not certain of what workplace harassment is, as such, this act goes unpunished or unreported when it happens.

This article addresses the issue of workplace harassment, what it’s about and how to handle it. In the course of this discussion, you will understand why many employees quit their jobs and sometimes withdraw from society. 

But the big question remains, how can this issue be addressed and what happens to the victims of harassment? We will find out at the end of this article. 

But before we dive into all of these, let’s understand the meaning of workplace harassment;

What is Workplace Harassment?

Workplace harassment refers to any activity carried out by an employee, group of employees or a senior colleague to make the victim feel belittled or threatened. The main intention of a workplace harasser is to create an environment that makes their targets feel unsafe and uneasy.

Workplace harassment takes many forms, this could be it can manifest as offensive comments, derogatory jokes, or even physical, verbal, sexual, and emotional mistreatment or intimidation. 

There are different terms used to describe workplace harassment, such as “workplace bullying,” “mobbing,” or “workplace aggression.” 

Furthermore, harassment encompasses forms of discrimination and violations that affect various groups of people,t permeating various industries and workplaces across Africa. It is not limited to a specific group. 

Workplace harassment occurs to individuals within a targeted multiple groups, such as women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and immigrants, Defining workplace harassment requires a diverse understanding since it cannot be confined to a single, clear-cut definition.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as covering various behaviours, such as offensive jokes, slurs, epithets, name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, mockery, insults, put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. 

Therefore, It is important to note that all forms of workplace harassment are unlawful. These behaviours not only affect an employee’s well-being, productivity, and sense of security but also expose organisations to legal repercussions if they fail to address harassment adequately.

Types of Workplace Harassment

Recognizing the diverse nature of workplace harassment is crucial, as it can manifest in various ways. This awareness empowers individuals to identify instances of harassment targeting themselves or their colleagues.

Digital harassment (cyberbullying):

While digital harassment occurs online, it can be equally detrimental to in-person bullying. This newer form of harassment can transpire across various digital platforms. 

It encompasses activities like posting threats or derogatory comments on social media, creating fake profiles to bully someone, developing web pages to mock and belittle victims, and spreading false allegations online. 

The prevalence of social media in the workplace, along with the ease of online communication, has increased the likelihood of digital harassment incidents.

Physical harassment:

Various degrees of physical harassment can occur in the workplace. For instance, unwanted gestures like touching an employee’s clothing, hair, face, or skin, as well as more severe actions such as physical assault, threats of violence, or damaging personal property, fall within this category. 

Identifying physical harassment can be challenging due to the varying degrees involved.  According to Chancey’s statement, which is 90% true in a practical sense, In some cases, physical harassment may be dismissed as a joke if no significant physical harm occurs. 

However, even in the absence of severe physical harm, it is still considered physical harassment. If a situation becomes violent, it is crucial for employees to dial the emergency number or use the fastest exit and avoid intervening themselves.

Verbal harassment:

Verbal harassment involves continuous destructive behaviour that poses a threat to both your well-being and professional growth. According to Chris Chaney, founder and CEO of Amplio Recruiting, It includes demeaning remarks, offensive gestures, and unjustifiable criticism, including insults, slurs, unwanted jokes, and hurtful comments. Identifying verbal harassment can be challenging, since it falls within the non-physical realm of violence.

Psychological harassment:

Psychological harassment shares similarities with verbal harassment but adopts more covert strategies, such as exclusionary tactics, information withholding, and gaslighting, also similar to bullying. 

The intention behind these actions is to break down the victim, erode their self-esteem, and undermine their position. Often, these behaviours may not appear as obvious harassment but constitute deliberate psychological bullying.

Sexual harassment:

Sexual harassment is a serious offence and more prevalent than commonly perceived. According to a McKinsey survey, 35% of female respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. 

It is important to note that sexual harassment can occur to anyone, regardless of gender. This act covers unwanted sexual advances, such as inappropriate touching, sexual jokes, sharing explicit material, sending sexual messages, or demanding sexual favours for career advancement or job security. 

However, defining sexual harassment is not always straightforward, as it can be masked in seemingly harmless comments, gestures, or tones, creating a grey area that enables perpetrators to escape accountability. 

Sadly, victims hesitate to report sexual harassment due to fear of retaliation or the belief that the situation will improve on its own. However, it is crucial to report instances of a hostile work environment or behaviour that makes you uncomfortable.

So How do you Report Workplace Harassment?

In every organization, the human resources department plays a vital role in ensuring the well-being of employees. They are there to support and protect employees who find themselves in serious situations, whether they feel uncomfortable, threatened, or in danger due to the actions of a colleague. 

Good HR practices prioritize the safety and job security of employees.

However, It is important to note that most grievances or acts of harassment may not have physical evidence, but this should not discourage victims from filing an official complaint. 

According to Mooney, reporting workplace harassment is crucial because there may be other victims who have experienced similar offences by the same perpetrator.

While many organizations have well-defined codes of conduct and strict anti-harassment policies, smaller organizations may lack such resources. In situations where there is no formal reporting process for workplace harassment, you can follow these steps in a nonviolent scenario:

  1. If the harassment does not involve physical violence, attempt to address the situation directly with the perpetrator. Approach them privately and explain why you feel harassed. However, prioritise your safety if the situation appears unsafe.
  1. If resolving the issue with the harasser directly proves unsuccessful, consider escalating it to your immediate manager, unless they are the perpetrator. Present the matter to the attention of the HR department. Provide any available evidence, such as screenshots, texts, emails, or eyewitness accounts. However, If your company utilises HR software, utilise the portal to file complaints and ensure proper documentation.
  1. Managers should contact the EEOC if their company doesn’t adequately address complaints. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates incidents impartially and has laws and agencies regulating workplace conduct.

How Organizations address workplace Harassment 

To address workplace harassment effectively, organisations can adopt a range of strategies. Here are some strategies organisations can embrace:

Develop and Communicate Clear Policies: 

Organisations should establish clear and comprehensive policies that explicitly address workplace bullying and harassment. These policies should define what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, outline reporting procedures, and explain the consequences for offenders. It is essential to communicate these policies to all employees and provide regular training and awareness programs.

Promote a Positive Organizational Culture: 

Organisations can foster a culture of respect, inclusivity, and zero tolerance for bullying and harassment. This involves promoting open communication, encouraging diversity and inclusion, and providing a safe and supportive work environment. Leaders should set an example by modelling respectful behaviour and addressing any incidents promptly.

Conduct Regular Training and Education: 

Organisations should provide regular training programs on workplace bullying and harassment. These programs should educate employees on recognizing and preventing such behaviours, as well as guide appropriate responses and reporting procedures. Training should be mandatory for all employees, including supervisors and managers.

Establish Effective Reporting Mechanisms:

Organisations must establish confidential and accessible reporting mechanisms for employees to report incidents of bullying and harassment. This can include setting up dedicated reporting channels, such as a helpline or an online reporting system, to ensure employees feel comfortable reporting without fear of retaliation.

Respond Promptly and Investigate Thoroughly:

When an incident is reported, organisations must respond promptly and take all complaints seriously. Employers should conduct thorough and impartial investigations to gather evidence and determine the right course of action. This may involve an internal or external investigator with expertise in dealing with workplace misconduct.

A female worker being harassed by two male colleagues

Enforce Consequences:

By enforcing appropriate consequences for individuals found guilty of bullying and harassment, bullies can be placed on a scale. This can include disciplinary actions, such as verbal or written warnings, suspension, termination, or legal action if warranted. Consistent enforcement of consequences sends a clear message that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

Support and Provide Resources: 

Organisations should provide support to employees who have experienced bullying or harassment. This may involve offering counselling services, employee assistance programs (EAPs), or referrals to external support organisations. It is crucial to ensure that affected employees feel supported throughout the process and have access to resources to address the emotional and psychological impact.

Regularly Monitor and Evaluate:

Organisations must regularly monitor and evaluate their efforts to address workplace bullying and harassment. This can involve conducting employee surveys, reviewing complaint data, and assessing the effectiveness of policies and training programs. These evaluations allow organisations to identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments to their strategies.

Foster a Whistleblower-Friendly Environment:

Organisations should encourage and protect whistleblowers who report incidents of bullying and harassment. Whistleblower protection policies and practices can be established to ensure employees feel safe reporting misconduct and are protected from retaliation.

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Workplace harassment poses significant challenges for individuals and organisations alike. The detrimental effects on individuals’ mental and physical health, as well as the negative impact on organisational productivity and reputation, emphasise the urgent need for prevention and intervention. 

Organisations must take a stand against workplace harassment by implementing comprehensive policies, promoting awareness and education, and fostering a culture of respect and inclusivity. Through collective efforts, we can create workplaces where individuals can thrive without fear of mistreatment, enabling organisations to reach their full potential.

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