No one said being a modern workplace leader would be easy. And from what I’m seeing on the frontlines with my clients, there are three, commonly held beliefs about workplace harassment that are making the role for organizational leaders more difficult than it needs to be.
The Extent of Harassment in the Workplace
It goes without saying that no one should be subject to harassment, of any kind, in their workplace - whether it comes from an employer, a manager or a colleague. Unfortunately, the statistics reveal a far different reality.
Based upon an extensive on-line survey of workers done by the Canadian Federal Government, harassment and sexual violence in workplaces are “underreported, often due to fear of retaliation, and that when they are reported, they are not dealt with effectively.” These incidents can have dramatic negative effects for both employees and organizations, such as harming workers’ health and safety, increasing absenteeism, turnover and costly litigation. (Employment and Social Development Canada, Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Workplace, Public Consultations, 2017)
Most online survey respondents who reported that they have experienced harassment, sexual harassment or violence in the past two years indicated that they experienced these behaviours more than once. A full 60% of respondents said they experienced some form of harassment in their workplace. (Employment and Social Development Canada, Harassment and Sexual Violence in the Workplace, Public Consultations, 2017)
Shocking. Sad. And true.
My Perspective From the Front Line
My experience, working with a broad cross-section of organizations, confirms the survey findings outlined above.
Bullying and harassment is a significant issue in the workplace. And it’s not an issue that will miraculously solve itself. In-fact, just the opposite. It is the type of problem that, if not addressed, often spreads, like a cancer, causing harm to increasing numbers of individuals and organizations.
Many business and organizational leaders have spoken with me about the onslaught of bullying and harassment complaints – few, if any, are straightforward or easy to address. For many, it feels like these challenges are increasing in both scale and complexity.
Some workplace harassment complaints are anonymous, others, on the other hand, are readily acknowledged but considered to be just part of the workplace “culture.” And the pain is not limited to junior or front-line staff.
Organizational leaders are filing their own complaints about being mistreated – by other leaders, colleagues, superiors, and even support staff. I’ve even seen complaints of harassment extend beyond the traditional boundaries of the workplace, to include contractors and members of the public.
Every workplace harassment concern must be reviewed as thoroughly as possible given the information available. Regardless of outcome, it’s important to understand that your organization, and its leadership, will be judged based upon how well – how fairly - it responds to complaints of harassment in the workplace.
To respond effectively, it’s important that you are not influenced by some of the commonly held myths regarding workplace harassment.
Debunking Three Common Myths About Workplace Harassment
There are many myths about workplace harassment complaints that must be debunked. Let’s look at the three I see most frequently in my work.
Myth #1: Respectful Workplace Policies Are Only for the Protection of Front-Line Staff
Everyone in the workplace is entitled to a safe and respectful work environment.
Managers should not have to experience humiliation, intimidation or shaming by those around them. They should never be told that “this is the cost of doing business.” They are entitled to lead their organizations and make difficult decisions in an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and safety.
Myth #2: Anonymous Complaints Can Safely Be Ignored
Although anonymous complaints are often challenging to investigate, you have a duty to inquire into the issues being raised. The review might be “thinner” than you’d prefer given the lack of specifics and sources, but you must take whatever reasonable steps possible to investigate whatever information you have.
Myth #3: Individuals Must Put Their Concerns in Writing Before They Are Investigated
While you can certainly ask for a written statement, it is not a prerequisite to your duty to inquire into concerns that have arisen.
The “triggering event” for a workplace review is a leader’s awareness of potential issues. An individual’s refusal to put their concerns in writing is not a defence to your refusal to consider them.
The Importance of Professional Advice
I wish I could say that debunking these three common myths would solve all workplace harassment issues. But you and I both know this is a challenging issue that requires comprehensive advice, professional support and guidance.
All is not lost.
Please, if your organization is experiencing issues related to workplace harassment, I encourage you to take a closer look at the MIRROR Method Workbook.
In the Workbook, I provide tips on how to respond to workplace concerns and address some of the most common questions. Do you need to conduct a formal review or can you resolve the issue informally? If it’s a formal review, what steps should you take to ensure your findings and conclusions will be defensible? Who should be involved? And just as importantly, who shouldn’t be?
Answers to these questions and others are available in the Workbook.
Have a read – and if you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. Together, let’s make your teams stronger, healthier and more productive than ever.