While some harassment at work can clearly cross a line, other forms can be subtler and therefore harder to deal with.
Workplace harassment can be an issue in any organisation, no matter how big or small. In recent years, we’ve seen a particularly strong spotlight on sexual harassment within the tech industry, most notably Uber’s sexual harassment issues in 2017 and the worldwide walkout by Google staff at the end of last year.
The problem with workplace harassment is that it doesn’t have to be blatant to be considered harassment. Another problem is that not all workplace harassment is of a sexual nature, and this can often be forgotten.
Not to mention the fact that most cases of harassment and discrimination are never reported to employers. This means that the prevalence of toxic behaviour within companies can be severely underestimated by managers.
Put simply, harassment is unwanted conduct. This can include spoken words, gestures, or the production or display of any offensive material. Joyce Rigby-Jones is a joint managing director of leading human resources (HR) consultancy Voltedge. She spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about workplace harassment.
“Unwanted conduct could be anything from a gesture to an offensive graphic on a colleague’s computer or a rude comment, and it is irrelevant if the person doesn’t realise that what they are doing is harassment – it’s the perception of the affected individual that matters.
“Bullying at work is defined as ‘repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work’,” she said.
“An isolated incident of the behaviour may be an affront to dignity but, as a once-off incident, is not considered to be bullying. Bullying puts at risk the safety, health and welfare of people at work.”
What should employees do?
If an employee feels like they’re being harassed, it can have a serious impact on their mental health. Rigby-Jones suggests approaching the person they are feeling harassed by and asking them to stop as the first step.
“If the worker doesn’t feel that they can do this, they should talk to their supervisor or manager directly. In larger organisations, there are trained designated employees who can help their colleagues understand what is happening to them and what the correct course of action might be.”
It can be daunting talking to anyone about workplace harassment and, because of how subtle the behaviour can be, victims of harassment at work can often feel like they’re being oversensitive or worry that they won’t be taken seriously. However, it’s important that an employee values their own feelings.
“If the worker feels that there is an issue, then, in their view, there is,” said Rigby-Jones. “Even if they have concerns, they should at least talk to another colleague or their immediate manager. Some forms of harassment are very discreet and undermining, and if the issue is not rectified the worker will continue to have issues and be upset.”
Rigby-Jones added that if an employee’s direct manager is the problem, they should instead go to another trusted colleague or manager.
What should employers do?
Rigby-Jones said it’s essential that when an employee comes to a manager to report harassment, it is taken seriously. “The employer then needs to review the company’s bullying and harassment policy/dignity at work policy and ensure that they follow this carefully,” she said.
“A manager has a duty of care to all his/her employees – so, if a manager sees an employee being picked on, receiving verbal abuse, or being excluded from groups in the workplace or canteen, then the manager should be investigating this further and supporting the employee.”
Having sessions for all employees on dignity at work can help. “Employees need to understand what harassment is and how it affects people, so talking about it and having very clear guidelines in employee handbooks [are] vital. Managers should be fully trained in both managing the company procedures and also identifying potential harassment within their teams,” she said.
Can tech reduce workplace harassment?
While training and policies are the essentials when it comes to dealing with workplace harassment, Dr Julia Shaw looked at other ways to improve the situation.
Shaw is a memory scientist who specialises in how people can best remember important emotional events such as harassment. She has also done extensive research on how bias, leading questions and problematic assumptions can impact interviews.
She developed Spot, an AI reporting tool that aims to help tackle workplace harassment and discrimination. “We wanted to create a way for employees to immediately be able to record inappropriate workplace behaviour – before their memory fades and when they need a way to get it off their chest,” she said.
“We also recognised that most people didn’t feel safe to speak up if they had to identify themselves, so from the beginning it was important to us that employees could submit reports anonymously, and that their employers were able to respond to them via our system.”
Spot gives employees the opportunity to speak about inappropriate workplace behaviour, including any kind of harassment, discrimination or bullying at work. “The organisations we work with can track engagement, and they can better respond to and manage reports.”
Shaw advises employers to give employees some sort of online reporting option and make sure there is an anonymity option so that workers feel safe. It’s also important to respond to complaints quickly to ensure people feel supported after reporting an incident.