Dealing with Workplace Harassment

See also: Workplace Stress

Harassment—particularly sexual harassment—has been in the headlines a lot recently. The use of the #MeToo hashtag has made clear that this is not an isolated problem, and that many women—and, indeed, some men—have endured it in silence for many years.

Many have been unsure how to handle it, or feared the power of the perpetrator, or perhaps just did not want to ‘rock the boat’ too much.

If the #MeToo hashtag, and its cousin, #Time’sUp, have shown us anything, it is that people need help and support to manage sexual harassment, especially in the workplace. Power imbalances, the nature of complaints, with their ‘You did–I didn’t’ nature, and the tricky subject matter, all conspire to make things harder.

This page provides some information about how to handle the situation, and how to find that help.

What is Harassment and Sexual Harassment?

Harassment is broadly defined as using aggression or intimidation, including threatening or abusive words or language. It is therefore closely akin to bullying, and many people consider the two the same thing.

Sexual harassment is defined as harassment involving any unwanted sexual advances or remarks. It may, therefore, be directed at both men and women, although recent reports suggest that women are the more common targets.

Does duration matter?

It is, perhaps, important to consider duration in the definition. Some people have suggested that sexual harassment is only happening if the behaviour takes place over a long period. This, in turn, would suggest that it must be endured for some time before anything can be done.

This surely cannot be true.

Nobody would argue that a single polite request for a date, however unwanted, would constitute sexual harassment. Repeated requests, however polite, might well. In that case, yes, duration might matter.

Even a single crude remark, however, or an unwanted touch, is one too many. Nobody should have to tolerate unwanted sexual ‘banter’ and remarks, or being touched without consent.

Dealing with Workplace Harassment

There are a number of steps that you can take to deal with workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. Many are similar to the steps required to deal with workplace bullying.

Say something to the perpetrator

Many victims of sexual harassment never say anything. The popular wisdom goes that people tend to think it must be their fault, or that they have somehow done something to invite that comment or behaviour.

This is unlikely to be true. Even if you did do something that was misinterpreted, that doesn’t make it your fault.

It is, therefore, a good idea to say something straight away, to let the perpetrator know that kind of behaviour or language is not acceptable to you. This may—and should—be enough to stop it in its tracks.

1. Document the behaviour

It is important to make a record of the behaviour, even the very first incident. Asking the perpetrator to stop might be enough, but if it is not, then you need evidence.

For each incident, record the date and time, any witnesses, and exactly what happened, including your response.

2. Report the behaviour

The next step, particularly if the behaviour does not stop, is to report it. If you work in a big organisation, there will probably be guidelines to say who to report to, but if in doubt, go to your manager, or the HR department if that is difficult for some reason. If there is no HR department, go up your line management chain: if it is difficult to talk to your manager, or they are the perpetrator, then go to their manager.

Should an incident of harassment always be reported?

If the incident was fairly low-key (for example, an ill-judged remark, followed by an immediate apology when you objected), then you might choose not to report it.

However, if the incident was bigger (a touch that it is hard to see could have been accidental, or strongly abusive language), and particularly if it upset you, then reporting it is a good idea. Your employer almost certainly has a ‘no tolerance’ policy, and should act against this kind of behaviour.

Where to draw the line is up to you. If you were upset by the incident, then it is probably best to report it. You may also want to ask a trusted colleague, particularly one with more experience in that workplace, for their views.

3. Seek further help if necessary

Not every company is very good at dealing with harassment.

The HR department is employed to manage the company’s interests, and may therefore not be operating in your best interest. It can therefore be helpful to take a friend with you when you go to speak to the HR department or managers, to make sure that there is someone who will be ‘on your side’.

If you are a member of a union, you may want to involve their local rep and ask them to attend meetings with you. The union rep may also have information about whether this is an isolated incident or whether your harasser has been involved in previous complaints.

You may also want to talk to your friends and family about what is going on. They will be able to provide additional support, and help you through the difficult times.

4. Keep going as much as possible

While a complaint is being investigated, work may become an uncomfortable place to be. The perpetrator may have been there a long time, or be popular, and your colleagues may be reluctant to believe your claims, even with evidence. This may make it very stressful to go to work.

However, it is important to keep going as much as possible.

Try to keep turning in good quality work. It may be tempting to go to the doctor and get a sick note, but it is unlikely to help you in the longer term. It is best to be around to know what is going on.

A final thought

Sometimes it is impossible to prove that sexual harassment happened. If it comes down to your word against theirs, the situation may be extremely difficult.

To avoid a challenge from your harasser for wrongful dismissal, the company may instead choose to move one or other of you so that you are separated. Even if your harasser is dismissed, you may find that colleagues are upset, and blame you for the loss of someone they valued.

Under these circumstances, you may well decide that the best option is to brush up your CV and your interview technique, and get yourself a new job with a company with less tolerance for harassment or bullying.