Harassment can be so deeply ingrained in an organisation’s workplace culture that it becomes ‘the new normal’, and HR leaders need a more unified approach to preventing and addressing it, experts warn.
According to not-for-profit employee assistance provider AccessEAP, comments such as ‘I was only joking’, ‘what happened to your sense of humour?’, or ‘no one else seems to mind’, are clear signs that harassment has become normalised in the workplace.
Harassment prevention training tends to focus on the perpetrator’s behaviour, but training entire teams to be vigilant for harassment, and educating them on how to deal with cases when they see them, is necessary to eradicate unacceptable behaviours.
“The important thing to focus on here isn’t the intention of the act, but its effects,” says AccessEAP clinical services director, Marcela Slepica. “The person who feels impacted by the behaviour should not be made to question whether their response is valid. These attitudes are dangerous and can reinforce the very behaviour, which makes the victim feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the workplace.”
“What might be funny in the pub, will not cut it in the workplace.”
Most victims will be hesitant to report the harrassment they are facing, Bryant-Smith says, so HR needs to train employees on how to respond if they witness bad behaviour.
“Active bystander training focuses on skills development in employees to understand that most people’s immediate reaction when they see harrassment is to keep quiet. It’s either because they fear retribution or because they fear they might become the next target, or they are not sure how to intervene. However, if we all take responsibility to build a safe and healthy environment where our colleagues are treated with respect, then we need to step in if we see them being treated badly.”
One approach to train employees how to intervene is to practise those skills through role-playing.
“They can say something to either the person who is engaging in the bad behaviour or the victim. They can say something like: ‘I see you are raising your voice and it’s making me and other colleagues uncomfortable’. And then offer to assist to offer alternatives. Or to say, ‘it does not appear to be in line with our values and I need you to stop it’.”
Another approach, she suggests, is to distract the bully and victim and almost fabricate a reason to approach the pair and make comments such as, ‘John, are you aware that Sue was looking for you earlier?’
If employees fear they cannot intervene without risking their own health and safety, she says, then they can film the inappropriate behaviour and report back to HR.
HR leaders need to stand behind these efforts, and work hard to ensure they have the trust of all workers, otherwise people will not report this type of behaviour.
Some of the hardest cases for HR to manage, Bryant-Smith admits, are those with no witnesses.
“The hard cases to manage are people who engage in [harassment] in a sophisticated, deliberate and manipulative way and in particular when they are careful only to behave badly when no none is around.
“It’s harder for the employer to make a reliable finding on whether that behaviour did occur when they have one word against another. It is still possible and employers still have a responsibility to determine the facts and comply with their policies and the law, but it’s a bit more tricky from an evidence perspective.”
The same standards and values apply when it’s a superior who is displaying bad behaviour, Bryant-Smith says.
“Employers are more aware of the reputational damage that will arise if they do not handle misconduct against senior staff very, very carefully,” she says. “Most employers understand and accept now that seniority is never an excuse for inappropriate conduct.”
According to AccessEAP clinical service manager Dorienne Spennato, clear HR policies and practices are even more crucial when the perpetrator is a superior.
“A lot of the reasons why people do not report a bully is because of the consequences; the consequences [being either the behaviour is] getting worse, or they are victimised in other subtle ways or it being career-limiting. That’s a reality.
“So, if it’s positional power where a manager is harassing someone who is subordinate to them, having an objective and supportive HR team can be really, really helpful.”
Originally published in HR Daily