Harassment in the Workplace. You might find yourself aligned with one of three points of view on the matter just reading those words; it stirs up an emotional response perhaps because you’ve been a victim, it’s overblown (likely because you may yourself have engaged in harassing behaviour), or you’re not sure how big a problem it truly is because you’ve not encountered it in the workplaces you’ve been at.
In its simplest definition, harassment in the workplace is unwanted and unwelcome behaviours that are intentionally designed to upset and disturb someone. These behaviours can be of the bullying or sexual kind. In either case, there is an exertion of power and influence of at least one person over another or others(s).
For some people who have themselves never experienced first-hand harassment, it’s difficult to grasp how one person finds themselves a victim of harassment when it would appear the most obvious solution is to nip things in the bud at the first unwelcome behaviour. What is even more hard for these people to understand is when a victim comes forth and they are viewed by most people as intelligent, strong, confident people. How could they become a victim?
From what I’ve learned, many perpetrators of harassment start off with a victim in mind, targeting them for some time as a future victim, and it’s methodical. They can manoeuver their victim into a situation where the victim is confused wondering if in fact they are even reading a situation right or being overly sensitive, such as an apparent accidental brush of one body part against them as they pass. “Did that just happen? Maybe I’m just over-reacting?” And this has the potential then to escalate dramatically when a person is reluctant to come forth and make a formal complaint of sexual harassment because it’s not in one’s nature to make such allegations and create a fuss.
Unfortunately, not reporting this behaviour often has the effect of further disempowering the victim. They may become edgy at work, anxious, fearful, see a rise in absenteeism, withdrawing from regular routines, avoiding some responsibilities, and all of this can be misread by co-workers as the victim having a drop in performance on the job.
Some victims of bullying behaviour may find themselves constantly in a state of stress, knowing they themselves should report the behaviour but incapable of doing so out of fear, reprisals and additional abuse to be endured.
It’s a fine line for some isn’t it? Is the boss or supervisor who has high expectations and drives their team to excel and push themselves to deliver more bullying and harassing or just getting people out of their personal comfort zones and helping their employees reach their true potential?
Does your workplace have a policy on dealing with and reporting harassment in the workplace? If it does, is it posted for everyone to see and are their well-known steps to take to put an end to it? Are these steps and the issue raised at least annually in an office-wide or team meetings format so it never gets taken for granted? If your workplace doesn’t have such a policy, why not?
Employers would do well to have such policies in place if for no other reason than to maximize their profit-making and production targets. Workers who are distracted by the fear of physical, mental or sexual harassment cannot function at their best. They may actually pose a danger to themselves or to their co-workers – even the general public if they are distracted on the job always looking furtively around themselves for their harasser. Someone on a vehicle assembly line might be endangering a future consumer if they can’t focus on installing some part securely. Not only could someone die from an avoidable ‘accident’, the victim of harassment might find their own quality of work being questioned.
So why don’t victims just report abuse? Well some do of course. But of those who don’t, they often cite embarrassment, pride, not wanting to further humiliate themselves, being perceived as the trouble-maker and so they may just put up with unwelcome behaviour. Unfortunately, this has the result of stimulating the need for power in the abuser. They’ve got you right where they want you and you both know it. This manipulation of another is abhorrent and should be always discouraged in healthy workplaces.
So what can you do to protect yourself? For starters be self-aware. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t immediately dismiss your senses as over-reacting. Sure you might have misread a situation and it would be just as wrong to scream sexual harassment if someone really did accidentally back up into you as they loaded the photocopier with paper in the bottom drawer. Was it a one-off thing and they immediately apologized? Or on the other hand, was it something more? Even having a conversation with your boss off the record and saying you might have some concerns about potential harassment is a good first step. You might want to see a Counsellor through your workplace and talk things out.
Blatant harassment like veiled or open threats should be reported. You might find you’re not the only victim. Often a bully or harasser has exhibited this behaviour on others. If management never hears about it, how can they act on it to stop it?
Your health and safety in the workplace are important. You’ve got every right to work free of harassment whatever form it takes.