The “Me Too” Movement has brought harassment into the spotlight, highlighting the need to create a safe, inclusive workplace for all employees. But preventing harassment in the workplace requires more than a line in the company handbook.
While it starts with a formal, clearly stated policy, stopping harassment is really about a culture change. Employees need to know that they’re in a safe space and that no form of harassment will be tolerated. This mindset should be ingrained in your company culture.
Defining Workplace Harassment
The National Institutes of Health: Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion defines harassment as “Unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that denigrates, shows hostility or aversion toward an individual based on any characteristic protected by law, which includes race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity and pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, parental status, marital status, political affiliation, military service or retaliation.”
Two types of unlawful harassment are Quid Pro Quo Harassment (“This for that”) and Hostile Work Environment Harassment.
Quid Pro Quo harassment “occurs when a tangible employment action is made based on the employee’s submission to or rejection of unwelcome conduct.” Typically committed by a supervisor threatening the victim with firings, demotions, unwanted transfers or work assignments.
A hostile work environment results when “unwelcome conduct is so severe or pervasive that it renders the workplace atmosphere intimidating, hostile, or offensive to a reasonable person.”
How to Prevent Harassment in the Workplace
Defining and understanding harassment is the first step. Every organization should include clear definitions in their company policy regarding harassment. Once the policy has been established, here are some strategies to foster a harassment-free work environment:
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Conduct Education & Training Sessions
Require mandatory attendance from all employees. Everyone in the company should know the harassment policy. Provide examples to illustrate what behaviors are considered unacceptable. The training session should also cover the reporting procedure for harassment complaints.
Following the training session, HR should be available for follow-up questions and clarification. And all employees should sign an acknowledgment form that they have completed training and understand the company’s policy.
HR staff and managers should walk around the office and get a feel for the environment. How are employees interacting with each other? If any harassment is detected, it should be addressed immediately. Having a strong HR presence in the office will help to prevent inappropriate behavior while also making employees feel safe about speaking up.
Companies should also consider surveillance cameras in common areas and other workplace monitoring that’s compliant with privacy laws. Employees also need to be aware of these monitoring policies.
Set the Standard
Creating a safe workplace starts with executives and managers setting a positive example. The last thing you want is to talk about a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behaviors and then have a company leader exhibiting those inappropriate behaviors. Employees need to know that if they report misconduct, their complaint will be taken seriously—whether it involves the CEO or an intern.
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Create a Safe Space for Employees to Speak Up
Again, employees should know who to report to if they experience harassment. HR needs to listen and investigate the complaint fully, without bias. Leaders should encourage employees to speak up, but they also need to show that complaints are handled seriously and that appropriate action will be taken. Setting this example will make others feel more comfortable about coming forward in the future.