Harassment at work is a broad topic that encompasses a wide range of behaviors—from verbal/written harassment to physical harassment, to visual harassment. There is a lot of ground to cover here and, because there is, some organizations leave the language around workplace harassment purposely vague believing (or hoping) that employees will “know it when they see it.” 

That’s a dangerous position to take, though. It’s important for organizations to be explicit about what harassment at work is so that employees understand what is and is not appropriate and what will and will not be tolerated.

What is Harassment at Work

Harassment, by definition, is unfortunately, broad. The EEOC defines it as: “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national original, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It’s that phrase “unwelcome conduct” that makes this issue so complex and often confusing.

What one person may define as unwelcome, another may not mind—or may even welcome! Unfortunately, organizations aren’t able to fall back on that premise when addressing harassment at work, however logical it may seem. They must explicitly define what harassment means in their work environment and take steps to create an environment that is free from harassing behaviors.  

How to Prevent Harassment at Work

Despite the fact that organizations have been fighting to remove harassment from their work environments for years, the issue still exists—in fact, persists. What steps can you take to prevent harassment at work?

  1. Focus on creating a positive workplace culture that prevents harassment by encouraging good behavior, rather than simply waiting to respond to incidents after the harm’s been done. The way you position the message is critical to the vast majority of your employees who are also committed to creating and working in a positive culture free of harassment.
  2. Explicitly define what you mean by workplace harassment in your policies and other employee communication materials. Harassment at work encompasses a wide range of activities that can include written, verbal, visual, and physical behaviors
  3. Stress that workplace harassment is defined from the point of view of the person being harassed. Just because you and your happy hour buddy enjoy sharing lewd jokes with each other, doesn’t mean others will feel the same.

Activate Your Workforce to Prevent Harassment

Educate your employees on strategies to intervene when they see inappropriate behavior at work.

  1. Make sure that employees understand that even individuals who are not directly part of any discussions or activities they’re engaged in may experience harassment at work. For instance, a coworker that oversees an employee watching inappropriate material online can experience workplace harassment.
  2. Set the stage from the top of the organization on down and require senior leaders to be proactive in addressing and preventing workplace harassment. That means when they observe a situation they have a responsibility to step forward and take action. Their actions, and inaction, can send very loud—and potentially damaging—signals to others. 
  3. Understand that communication and education about harassment at work must be ongoing and not simply a one-and-done scenario or a check-off-the-box annual activity. 
  4. Enlist employees as part of the process of sustaining a positive, harassment-free workplace culture. Employees have an important role to play as active bystanders—after all, HR professionals and managers can’t be in all places at all times. They need to enlist employees in noticing and responding to behaviors that may be inappropriate. 
  5. When incidents of workplace harassment occur, take prompt and immediate action in accordance with your policies. Holding people accountable—regardless of where they may be positioned along the org chart—is critical. You must say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Preventing harassment at work is not a simple activity and not an activity that is ever truly “done.” It’s an ongoing process that involves a number of people, a number of activities, and an ongoing and relentless drumbeat in support of a safe and supportive culture where all employees are empowered to stand up and step forward. 

Prevent Harassment & Discrimination

Harassment training for the modern workplace can be challenging. EVERFI presents bite-sized content designed with your employees in mind to set the stage for discussing a positive workplace culture.