Harassment at work must stop - but do we actually know what it is?

Navigating grey areas requires good management, and a little common sense.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 09 Nov 2017

First of all, if you think the sexual harassment scandals engulfing Westminster and Hollywood aren’t going to spread to the business world, you may be in for a shock. Business people aren’t somehow more virtuous than politicians or directors, but they do accrue the same kind of power over junior people.

Frankly, it would be surprising if the same forces that have exposed high-level harassment elsewhere failed to do so here.The world of social media is full of harassment stories, as women and men have shared their experiences under the #metoo campaign. There's plenty of harder research too. Recent research from the CMI, for instance, found that 81% of managers had witnesssed inappropriate remarks over the last year.  

Exposure would of course be a very good, albeit sobering thing. Wherever they are, people shouldn’t have to go to work fearing sexual harassment by their bosses or their peers, and the powerful shouldn’t think they can get away with it.

That’s a hard statement to disagree with, isn’t it? But it does hinge on our understanding of ‘sexual harassment’. When someone says it, we naturally think of something we consider bad enough to warrant the term. But that doesn’t mean you and person next to you think that all the same things are bad or equally bad.  

Groping and flagrant propositions are pretty unequivocal, but what about flirting? Banter? Paying a complement?

Clearly there is a grey area where some people will think a certain behaviour is okay, and others will think it isn’t. It will depend on both context and subjective experience. And there’s the rub – to some extent, it’s harassment if a person feels harassed.

This creates a real danger for employers. In an effort to root out sexual harassment, bullying and other toxic behaviours at work, they risk replacing a culture of silence with a culture of fear.

No one wants to work in an environment where people are afraid to be themselves, where talking about personal lives is forbidden, where any attempt at humour or humanity could get you fired. This is not to say we should allow sexual predators to ‘bring their whole selves to work’, just that not all inappropriate behaviour is malicious.

‘People may have no idea that what they said was taken in a very negative way by someone else. They may think they’ve done nothing wrong, that they were just getting a few laughs, and in many instances they’d be horrified to find out they’ve made someone else uncomfortable,’ says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD.

Unsurprisingly, a key part of the solution in such cases is good management. When they’re doing their job properly, a manager will know the people involved and be aware of the context, making them uniquely placed to nip bad behaviours in the bud.

‘It can be that an informal chat with their manager will help steer people and prevent something escalating into a much bigger problem further down the line. These issues can become habitual, they can become part of the culture,’ cautions Willmott.

Good management can’t exist in a vacuum, however. Organisations need clear policies with examples of what’s acceptable and what’s not, and clear values role modelled by its leaders.

The very worst thing it can have is leaders who exhibit harassing or bullying behaviour themselves. This can be toxic to your culture. In such cases, Willmott says, it’s important for HR to step up and raise the issue with the leader in question. ‘But it’s also the responsibility of other senior managers. Sometimes the only way to deal with it is collectively.’

In all cases, it’s important to keep the complaints process confidential, says Willmott, to protect both the accuser and indeed the accused. Very public accusations such as have graced the front pages of late may reflect cultures and organisations that won’t listen, but they are hardly the ideal outcome. Yes they have helped expose wrongdoing, but mud sticks, even to those who never actually did anything to deserve it in the first place.

Ultimately, when navigating the grey areas, employers need to show a little common sense, says Willmott. With good management, sound policies and proper training, the workplace can be a safe place, without losing its humanity. 

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