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Harassment & Discrimination

Three Important Pieces of the Workplace Harassment Puzzle

Jun 09, 2015

puzzle pieces

Quick. Define workplace harassment. Done?  Would it surprise you to know that almost everyone reading this post would have a different definition of harassment?

It's true. And it's one of the reasons identifying and dealing with harassment and bullying on the job is so difficult. Behaviors that some people would see as just teasing or harmless poking fun are experienced by others as harassment. And what about bullying? Is it just another word for the same thing? Clearly some tools are needed to:

1) Decide what constitutes harassment 
2) Define the line between harassment and bullying
3) Determine what actions need to be taken to address harassment before and after it occurs. 

Find those pieces of the puzzle and you have a chance of addressing the rising tide of harassment on the job. 

So what is harassment? 

It might be easier to start by defining what it isn't. Harassment isn't happening every time some gets their feelings hurt or feels offended by someone else's behavior or words. Stopping harassment does not mean everyone has to walk on eggshells, nor does it include an isolated or minor offense, 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines unlawful harassment as: 

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

The federal government's definition is one part of the puzzle. State, local and professional associations sometimes add additional criteria, such as gender identity or sexual preferences. They can also expand the age protection to cover both the young and the old. But the message is clear. Harassment on the job is limited to specific categories, and requires an on-going problem. 

And then there's bullying

Bullying is a bit more open to interpretation than unlawful harassment. Someone can be bullied without reference to any of the protected categories mentioned above. But just like harassment, bullying isn't about a one-time comment or action. It's about a pattern. 

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, bullying is:

... usually seen as acts or verbal comments that could 'mentally' hurt or isolate a person in the workplace. Sometimes, bullying can involve negative physical contact as well. Bullying usually involves repeated incidents or a pattern of behaviour that is intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group of people. It has also been described as the assertion of power through aggression.

Bullying can happen to a group, or the target can be just one person. Unlike harassment, most locations have no clear laws defining violations, although that is changing in some areas. But the lack of laws doesn't mean it's not a problem that needs to be addressed. Failing to do so hurts your entire workforce...and could even result in lawsuits. 

The final piece of the puzzle: What can we do? 

Workplace harassment and bullying can happen anywhere. But it can only become a problem in an organization that supports these types of behavior, turns a blind eye to reports of harassment and bullying, or punishes the victims of harassment/bullying. A company that deals quickly with harassment of any kind, and does not reward aggressive attitudes is unlikely to have a long term problem. 

If your company is facing complaints, if you want to prevent problems before they start, or if you're not sure what your company culture currently supports, it's time to be proactive. Company-wide anti-harassment training is one of the most effective tools for raising awareness and changing attitudes. Policies that deal quickly with people who harass or bully are also needed to show that the company is now taking these issues seriously. A confidential means for reporting violations is also critical for a company serious about eliminating this damaging behavior. 

Taking the three pieces of the puzzle together, any company can make workplace harassment and bullying a thing of the past. Is it time for your company to take the first step? 


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