This new movement seems to have many businesses very worried and upset as they are concerned that they could be sued for harassment. As a result, I have been doing lots of workshops on how to create a harassment-free work environment. This is not ‘rocket science’ but does require more self-awareness of how what we say and do is being perceived by those around us. It means we need to exhibit more emotional IQ.
According to many labour codes as well as the Human Rights Act, employees are entitled to a safe, comfortable and respectful workplace and if an organization is not providing that they could conceivably be reported.
To that end, it is not just the leaders who need to be aware and commit to this sort of culture by modelling appropriate behaviours and respectfully listening to their people. They must also put into place appropriate policies and procedures for dealing with situations that could be construed as harassment. The HR department, managers/supervisors and the employee assistance person need to be aware of those policies and procedures so that they can help employees to deal effectively with issues that may arise when someone exhibits behaviours, exchanges or technology in ways that make others feel disrespected, unsafe or uncomfortable.
Some people may not feel able to confront someone who they feel has disrespected them and that is when they must seek assistance and support from either their manager or HR person. It should be done very soon after the incident as humans do not remember details for very long and it is important to explain exactly what happened, where and when. If others observed the situation, enlisting their input could also be helpful.
In addition, humans are not mind readers so if one does not let the “offender” know that they did something inappropriate, the behaviour will likely be repeated. That is why it is best to tell them or get someone in authority to deal with them very soon after the incident.
I usually run an exercise in this workshop where I divide the attendees into three groups. Group one is to come up with examples of visual harassment, Group two is to come up with examples of verbal harassment, and Group three is to come up with examples of physical harassment. I never cease to be surprised at what the third group comes up with as examples: pushing, spitting, touching, punching, kicking. Really??? Are these not adults? How can grown adults behave like this? I guess I should no longer be surprised because it happens at pretty much every workshop but it still astounds me.
I like to do this exercise as it draws their attention to issues that they might not consider issues and how to be more considerate of the diversity in the workplace these days. People from different cultures, religions, and countries have experienced different morals, practices, and expectations for how one speaks and acts with others. Here is an example: a few years ago we went on a Safari to Kenya. During the trip, we visited a Masai village and before we went the guide advised not to pat the little kids on their heads as this is viewed as very disrespectful in this culture. We would never have known that and would likely have patted some kids on the head, so we were very glad that she told us about this custom. Most of us are probably very ignorant of how things are done in other countries and cultures and so may do things that are viewed as disrespectful without realizing it. That is why the person on the receiving end needs to educate us.
Again, we need to pay attention to the non-verbal reactions of others….the look on their face, the way they are standing, etc. It could indicate that we have done something inappropriate and then we can ask what we did so that we do not repeat it.
If one is told that something was disrespectful and we repeat it anyway, that becomes harassment. If we do not repeat the action or words, then we are done and there is no harassment…..we can apologize and make sure not to repeat the issue.
Finally, it is very important today to pay attention to the words we use, the gestures we use, the pictures and emails we may share, the screensavers we have, posters we may have in a common area, etc. All of these things could be viewed as disrespectful to others if we do not understand what matters to them from their life experiences. In addition, inappropriate touching, comments, or blockage of passage is just not acceptable and should be avoided at all costs.
If we are respectful of one another, mindful of how we speak to each other and pay attention to how what we have said and done is being perceived by our colleagues, the workplace will be a happier place for everyone. Happy environments usually mean higher performance, productivity, efficiency, and creativity which is good for everyone.