Harassment takes many forms but is always a problem inside a workplace. It can ruin relationships, cause undue stress on employees and teams and can lead to talented people leaving your company.
As a manager, it’s important to recognize harassment when and where it happens, but it can be tricky if it’s not an overt, obvious offense. It’s your responsibility to take accusations of harassment seriously, or to act when you see it happen directly; failure to do so could result in a loss of talent and damage to your company’s reputation.
First, a definition:
Harassment can mean many things to many people and can take many forms. Often, the type of harassment that comes to mind is sexual harassment, in which an employee is the subject of unwanted advances, uncomfortable comments, or threatened with actions should they not perform services or act in a certain way. That’s one type of harassment but not the only one: Harassment also can mean spreading rumors about someone, insulting them, acts or comments meant to intimidate or threaten. Harassment can be from one employee to another, between two managers, or from a manager or supervisor to someone on their team. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says harassment can come in the form of “offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.” The threat of retaliation falls into this definition as well.
Keep in mind that harassment doesn’t just involve the perpetrator and the victim; the creation of a hostile work environment in which one or more people are the subject of this kind of treatment can affect the whole team or department.
Next, what do you do?
If someone brings you a complaint that they’re being harassed, or they’ve observed it in the workplace, start taking notes. Obtained detailed information about the situation, including when the incidents occurred, who was involved, who might have been a witness to the event, how many times it happened, etc. If the person reporting the incident is not the one the harassment was aimed at, have a separate conversation with that individual to get their side of the story and see what happened. Then, talk to the person who is alleged to have done the harassing. Both — or all — parties need to know you’re aware of the situation and will be monitoring it. It’s possible the witness misunderstood a situation — some people have similar senses of humor that, to an outside observer, might sound like a tense exchange or argument but is in reality an overall harmless joke — but it’s better to try to get to the bottom of things before they escalate.
If there is a problem, file a report with your company’s human resources department to get it on the record. Continue to monitor all involved parties and take steps to enact remediation when needed. The sooner corrective action is introduced, the better. The person who is being harassed needs, and deserves, to know you have heard them and will protect them; the offending person needs to know their behavior and actions are unacceptable and they need to do better.
Talk to your team about the working environment.
Harassment rarely happens in a vacuum. There might be dynamics in place that, as a manager, you’re not aware of or not privy to because you’re not with your team all the time. As an investigation into harassment is underway, talk with your team, as a group and individually, to find out what led to this incident. Was there a long build-up, or did this come out of nowhere? Was someone acting inappropriately, telling jokes or making comments and someone stood up, prompting the harassment to start? This conversation might happen with an HR representative present, as it could help their investigation, but as a manager, it’s important for you to understand this situation and learn about it so you can take steps to rectify it.
Be prepared to take action and follow through on it.
Some people will not respond well to knowing they’ve been called out for being inappropriate or threatening. They might react in a retaliatory way toward their victim, even if that person wasn’t the one to report their misconduct. If you see or hear of another offense, escalate the situation, bringing in HR for a meeting to discuss warnings or other corrective actions. There’s no room to condone or allow harassment to continue or to provide the impression that this is not a serious situation — it is. At the same time, if the harassment continues, it’s time to separate the involved parties. This might mean making remote work accommodations or reassigning someone to a different team or a different part of the workplace if remote is not a possibility. All steps must be taken to keep the parties separate so the situation ends.
If the harassment continues, termination might be the only answer.
Work with your HR department, and legal team if applicable, to help facilitate any investigation, allowing for open access to your employee’s schedules to help conduct interviews as part of the investigation. If the determination is made that the offending employee will not or cannot improve their behavior, and termination is the best action, make accommodations for your team to be in a safe space when this is carried out. Retaliatory language or actions might occur, and taking the team out of the line of sight is best for everyone.
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Harassment can happen to anyone and can be initiated by anyone, including fellow managers. Don’t be intimidated or afraid to speak up and take action to protect your employees. If people see you standing up for your subordinates, they’ll know they’re in a place where their safety and comfort are seen as a priority, where their concerns are taken seriously and where they are valued as individuals. Failure to step up and act on your team’s behalf can lead to valued employees leaving, maybe several at a time, and could result in negative reviews being posted online. That could drive away talented candidates who would otherwise have been interested in working at your company, further eroding the quality of your team and their efforts. Speaking up is always the right thing to do.
Once the dust has settled, if you’re looking to add to your team and help rebuild, call Sterling Personnel. We can help expand your candidate search and will prioritize the resumes of candidates in our database that might make a good fit for your team. We only share candidates that fit your company’s values, culture, and skills targets, and we can conduct initial interviews, making the hiring process faster. Interested? Call Sterling Personnel today!