Last reviewed 28 February 2018

Bob Patchett looks at what harassment is, discusses how to assess its prevalence in our own organisations and describes the appropriate ways of dealing with it.

Unhappy employees do not give their best possible performance. This becomes apparent if they have a bad cold, are worried about a sick relative or have been recently bereaved. We understand this and tend to accept the situation. Indeed, if an employee’s performance is poor, we usually enquire what is bothering them and, if appropriate, do something to help or at least express sympathy in expectation that they will eventually return to normal performance. But too often the reason for the inferior performance is unhappiness caused by other employees, and this is different for two reasons: first it is likely to be continuous, and second, we can and therefore should act to remove the cause.

Identifying harassment

We are talking here of harassment. We need to understand what it is, how prevalent it is in our own organisation, and what are the best ways of dealing with it. The identification of harassment in the workplace and its impact on productivity has been recognised as a problem for many years, yet it still prevails. Indeed, few days pass without some incident of harassment being reported in the press. An executive being accused of sexually molesting a woman, a junior leaving his employer because his supervisor regularly belittles him in front of colleagues. Yet managers so often fail to deal with issues, sometimes because they are not aware that a problem exists, at other times because they just do not know what to do about it and shelter behind platitudes. “It was only a bit of fun”, or “How do you know where to draw the line?” or even “People need to stand up for themselves”. These are feeble excuses. If one of your employees is feeling harassed, the performance of your section is diminished. Moreover, you may have legal proceedings taken against you both as a corporate body and as an individual manager because you failed to prevent it. Clearly you have a duty to take prompt remedial action. So find out what is going on, decide how best to deal with it — if necessary by taking advice from your boss or a personnel officer — and act.

Preventing harassment

Take preventive action by educating your employees at all levels. However, do not lecture them as your message is unlikely to hit home with the intensity you need. Instead gather your people in small groups, explain what constitutes harassment and encourage them to discuss the topic in the context of their own employment. Explain that harassment is any human action that causes an employee to feel threatened or uncomfortable outside the management disciplinary process. Most people recognise the more serious examples of harassment such as using glaring racist language or making serious and inappropriate sexual suggestions. But more subtle examples are calling Scotsmen “Jock” or making jokes about suggested meanness; or addressing women as “darling” or putting an arm around their shoulder when talking to them. You may consider that these examples are harmless, just people being friendly. But are they? How do the recipients feel about them? Do they see them as fun or are they made to feel uncomfortable? And how do you know? The last question is critical and is also the pointer to the action you should take. Ask your people.

Do this in small workgroups so that timid employees are less likely to feel intimidated by large numbers or by people they do not know well. Give examples of how they may offend and how offence may be obviated. Say that George here is always called “Jock”, but you don’t know how he feels about being addressed by this generic term, so let’s ask him. “Does Mary enjoy being called ‘gorgeous’ or would she prefer to be addressed by her name; let’s ask her”. And although the pictures you pin up on the wall may be hymns of praise to the female form, does your wife like them on the living room wall, and what do your female colleagues feel about them in the workplace? Don’t be thrown if you get a response that you do not want. If Harry says that he is happy being called “Paddy”, respond with “So at least we now know, but we don’t know about the next person you address as ‘Paddy’”. Ideally, ask everyone in the group to volunteer anything that they find uncomfortable in the way they are addressed or treated, and ask them to say what would make things better for them. Then go on to suggest a collective commitment such as “So from now on we will not put our arm around Mary or indeed anyone when we speak to them, OK?”

These meetings of course will take up time, but be aware that if an employee complains in law that the environment in which they worked caused them to leave your employ, or made them ill with stress, or made them just feel unhappy, your organisation could be required to pay out many thousands of pounds in compensation, its good name would be tarnished, and you yourself could be found culpable for having allowed the unsatisfactory environment to prevail.

Dealing with legal proceedings

Should you be threatened with legal proceedings, your only valid defence would be that you did all you reasonably could to prevent harassment from happening, therefore look to your policies and procedures. First make sure that you have a policy explaining what constitutes harassment, that it is forbidden in your workplace, and that you have arrangements for dealing with any incidents. This should be signed by your chief executive to demonstrate its importance. Supporting this policy you should have statements in your employee handbooks emphasising that harassment of any form constitutes gross misconduct that is likely to lead to summary dismissal. Make clear what an employee should do if he or she feels harassed but feels unable to deal with it directly with the perpetrator. Ideally this should be dealt with through the normal management channel, but the employee may be too embarrassed or fearful to report the matter to the immediate boss, therefore an alternative, such as a personnel officer or the company secretary, should be nominated. In a larger organisation nominate several persons, who may include representatives from unions or ethnic groups, but certainly you should appoint gender representatives.

In addition to the group meetings described earlier, you should train managers at all levels how to look out for possible harassment; what they should do if they see or hear of incidents; and how to deal with complaints. If the incident is truly not too serious then perhaps a word in the offender’s ear may be sufficient shock to ensure a permanent cure. However, for anything more serious, a formal warning or a final warning would be appropriate. And since you have listed harassment as gross misconduct, you could safely dismiss summarily.

Conclusion

Finally, look after the victims. Certainly apologise yourself on behalf of the organisation and perhaps arrange for the perpetrator to do so personally. That should satisfy most victims, but if they have been seriously affected, consider paying for them to receive counselling.

Harassment saps productivity, it is immoral, it can attract huge fines. It is your duty to eliminate it.