At a recent webinar, we heard about a workplace harassment case in the UK:
During a heated verbal exchange, a female manager had called a male employee ‘a bald $#%@’. He complained – not about the ‘$#%@’ but about being called bald.
Since baldness, he claimed, applies mainly to males, it amounts to gender abuse. He won his case. Some think that the three bald, male adjudicators had something to do with it.
We might be amused, but workplace harassment in all its ugly forms is no joke. It is widespread and affects many people. It includes sexual, racial and gender-based harassment and general bullying. It may present as physical, verbal, social-media or psychological attacks.
It must be eradicated: common sense demands it, and the ‘Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace’ commands it.
Apart from violating fundamental human rights, abuse destroys trust, including trust in the organisation and its managers. Without trust, teams cannot function, and employees disengage.
Employers may also be vicariously liable if they have not taken steps to avoid or minimise the risk.
Policies on harassment generally and sexual harassment in particular are essential. These should include definitions, processes, procedures to follow and consequences for noncompliance.
However, policies and declarations of zero tolerance are not enough. Our discussions, actions and attitudes must show a real and ongoing commitment to eradicate harassment from all aspects of the workplace – including casual conversations.
Dare to ask
Initiate discussion. Dare to ask employees what they have experienced. Their input will guide the policy-making process and your training and development interventions.
Training (especially of managers) is critical. Given the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, we cannot assume that it is not happening in our space.
Failure to take these minimum steps may suggest to employees and to the courts that we do not take the matter seriously and may increase the potential for hefty claims for damages.
What do you need to do next?