The #MeToo movement has pushed awareness of harassment—sexual and otherwise—to the forefront of HR issues. But what is harassment, and what is the best way to deal with it? The go-to default approach that most organizations have taken to address all types of harassment in the workplace have generally included having a policy, having a reporting procedure, and having an investigation approach.
But, clearly, this approach hasn’t been working. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, about 25% of women report having been victims of workplace harassment. SHRM reports that “a 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute estimated that 61 percent of U.S. employees are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace, 19 percent have experienced it and another 19 percent have witnessed it.”
Worse, training efforts may even backfire. In an article for IEEE Spectrum, Prachi Patel writes: “Sociologists have found that anti-harassment training can reinforce gender stereotypes, implying women are weak and men are predators, and that some men come out of required training with more cavalier attitudes toward harassment than when they entered.”
It’s important, therefore, to ensure that employees understand what harassment is, that they feel empowered to report harassment when it occurs—even to step up to address instances of harassment themselves. A better approach? Prevention.
What is Harassment?
First, it’s important to know what constitutes harassment. According to USLegal.com, harassment is: “unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim.” It may include behaviors such as:
- Derogatory comments or slurs
- Lewd propositions
- Impeding or blocking movement
- Offensive touching
- Physical interference with normal work or movement
- Visual insults like derogatory posters or cartoons
That’s the legal definition. But then there are the definitions created through organizational policy. These policies may include some of these terms and examples. However, our position is that we need to move beyond legal standards as the baseline for these conversations and, instead, focus on higher-level values of respect, equity, inclusion, and acceptance.
Conversations then take a more aspirational and less antagonistic or judgmental tone. We’re focused more on the behaviors we want to see in support of our culture. Behaviors that are disrespectful or demean others are not supportive of the culture companies need to strive for. That shift in focus is foundational to an approach that is more about prevention and less about punishment.
Harassment Prevention—A Better Approach
Harassment prevention involves getting at the root causes of harassment and changing behavior to prevent situations from escalating. If companies focus only on the egregious behaviors defined under legalistic definitions of harassment, their intervention often occurs too late to generate positive change. Research has shown that individuals who engage in harmful behaviors tend to repeat—even escalate—those behaviors over time.
Taking a preventive approach—building a culture of mutual respect and civility—when done effectively, can stop these behaviors before they start. Some important prevention steps include:
- Engaging what we call the “healthy majority.” The vast majority of your company’s employees are unlikely to be harassers. These are the people who can be the guardians of your culture if they’re empowered to, as the government has exhorted all of us to say something when we see something.
- Give employees the tools and support they need. Telling them to say something if they see something isn’t that helpful if they don’t know what specific behaviors they should be looking for, what to say, or who to say it to.
- Ongoing efforts to build and sustain a culture that is supportive of a harassment-free work environment.
Employees lead the way. The message that employees deliver when they see (or hear) something can be as simple as using distraction to diffuse a situation. Saying, to the subject of harassment: “Let’s go get a cup of coffee” can help remove the individual from the situation. Then, having a conversation about what you saw and how it made the individual feel, along with a suggestion to report the incident to someone in HR.
When everyone is not only empowered but expected to take a proactive role in building a culture of respect, these behaviors don’t have a chance to escalate and preventing workplace harassment becomes easy. We can help prevent harassment—together.