The Harassment-Free Workplace

August 17, 2019 by  

The #Me Too movement has a lot of organizations very nervous, and with good reason. In Canada, the Canadian and Provincial labour codes, as well as our Human Rights Act, stipulates that employees are entitled to a safe, comfortable, and respectful work environment. So, if an organization is not providing that, they can be at risk for a lawsuit. Not only does the leadership have to model respectful and appropriate behaviours but those behaviours must also become a part of the company’s culture so that everyone behaves in the same respectful manner. If that does not happen, and some employees feel disrespected or unfairly or inappropriately treated, they can file a complaint against the company. Besides, poisonous work environments are not very good places to work and can cause a lot of stress, turnover, sick days, underachievement, and ultimately unmet goals…..none of which is healthy for any organization.

As a result of this current fear, I have been providing a lot of Harassment Workshops for clients, educating their employees on what behaviours are acceptable and working with them on appropriate procedures to deal with situations that arise. The aim of the sessions is to make the employees more aware of what they should be paying attention to when they are with others.

I always start the session by explaining that today, one needs to be more sensitive to and aware of how what we say and do is being perceived by those around us. If we notice that someone looks or seems uncomfortable with a comment or remark, then you should ask them if you have offended them in some way so that you learn not to repeat that remark or action. If you apologize and do not repeat that behaviour, this issue is over. However, if you do continue to “harass them” you will have crossed the line and they can bring a complaint against you. Also, when someone feels disrespected, it is up to them to either tell the person how they feel, (because we are not mind-readers and may honestly not realize that we offended them) or to report the incident to the manager or HR person or whomever the company has designated as the appropriate person to speak with about such issues. It is best to do this as quickly as possible so that you remember all that happened. If anyone else witnessed the incident, perhaps they could come with you and support you.

This really speaks to emotional intelligence and common sense, however, it appears that today there does not seem to be much common sense or emotional intelligence any more and so we do need to make people more aware of the consequences of not practising these two very basic human behaviours.
In addition, every organization needs to have policies and procedures in place to deal with such situations and all employees must be aware of what they are so that they know what to do and who to contact. Finally, the process must include warnings and consequences that matter to the employees or the behaviour will not stop.

Employees need to be aware that verbal, physical, and visual forms of harassment are all dealt with in the same manner. One needs to be careful of screenshots, posters, racial or religious jokes or remarks, physical contact or gestures, and what is sent in emails as they can be seen by others or sent to others, even by mistake.
In the area where I live, for example, we probably have one of the most diverse communities in North America, maybe even the world so we have to be especially self-aware around co-workers from other cultures, religions, backgrounds and even education. The reason is this, just because something is not offensive to you or your Caucasian buddies, it is not necessarily okay with someone from another country or culture. As a result of this situation and because most of us would have no idea that we were doing or saying something offensive, that is why we need to observe the reactions of those around us in case we have done something that upset them……we need to be very observant of the non-verbals being demonstrated to know when we have possibly made a misstep.

For example, several years ago, we went on a Safari to Kenya. On our trip, we were taken to a Masai village to meet some of the local people. Our guide warned us that in their culture it was most offensive to pat small children on their heads. That is a very common practice here and likely any one of us might have done it as the kids were very cute. Not wanting to be offensive, we thanked the guide for her advice and were very careful not to touch the children. Again, we would not have known that what we were doing was something offensive if she had not warned us.

In many ways, this is probably a good thing as we have the opportunity to learn about and be more respectful to our co-workers so that everyone can enjoy a positive work environment. When people are happy they are more productive, efficient, creative, and healthy which is a win/win for everyone. I encourage everyone to employ more emotional intelligence in your daily life so that we can all get along better and be respectful of each other.


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