By Maria Collar, SIOP Blogger
Statistics consistently show that workplace harassment still has the ability to shock. It is no wonder that only a minutiae of those impacted by abusive behavior ever make a formal complaint. A number of things often combine to keep lips sealed: guilt, shame, embarrassment, upbringing, past experiences, fear of being labeled, sensitivity of the topic or unresolved past issues. And of course, others keep silent because they distrust the procedures for handling complaints. Some even say that it is demeaning to have to turn to your supervisor for personal protection at work.
These reasons, although powerful, do not fully explain why there is a heavy blanket of silence in the face of abusive behaviors. Very often it is not just silence that stands in the way of reporting, but lifting the willful blinds of harassment can be the greatest barrier. The fact is that many people are blind to what truly constitute harassing behaviors. Despite language on Civil Rights Acts and EEOC regulations, harassment can be difficult to define.
For the most part, harassment is not about attractiveness or even sex at all, it is about an abuse of power designed to control the other person. Harassing behaviors are tactics used by the abuser to make the other person feel vulnerable or powerless. Those who are violated often feel victimized and with little strength to fight back.
The foremost thought on the minds of victims that have been harassed is: What have I done wrong? While the person being victimized is rarely able to fit the situation into a nice neat formula, the person knows he/she is being harassed when they feel it. However, in some situations, it truly can be difficult to decide whether a particular behavior amounts to harassment.
The following guides can assist understanding and assessing less blatant behaviors:
- Would the behavior be appropriate in front of a spouse or parent?
- Would the behavior be appropriate in front of a same sex colleague?
- Would it be acceptable to subject your spouse or parent to the same behavior?
- Does it need to be said or done at all?
Despite all good intentions, fear of retaliation keeps most harassed people from reporting. A good harassment policy should assure that there will be no retaliation for filing a complaint against harassment or cooperating in an investigation. Above all, effective harassment policies should be seen as a work in progress. Meaning, it needs to be updated with the times, altered to reflect the changing roles, and their should be periodic perusal of the policy to help reinforce its provisions. To reassure employees that management will not tolerate abusive behaviors, a zero tolerance workplace enforces effective training programs.
If you feel that your policy is falling on deaf ears, take a hard look the structure and consider adding some positions building up to trust. Here are some practical ideas:
- Find out who else cares about the problem. Harassment is an issue that affects many people. Talk with your talent and ask them to talk with people they know who may also be concerned about it.
- Agree on a plan. Get together and identify who in the company would deal with these types of issues. List concrete suggestions to improve the situation. Figure out how to get more information if you need it. Decide whether the best tactic is a letter, petition, meeting or some other work action.
- Take action. Involve as many people as you can and act as a group. If harassment is pervasive, taken for granted, and management appears oblivious to it, an advocacy network can provide great support.
- Spread the word about your successes. When others see you have made a difference, they’ll want to join in. Once you’ve gotten started, you might decide to have an ongoing group to learn more about the issues and continue to win improvements.
- Keeping it going. Give talent a collective avenue to raise issues. It is more than likely that in an organization several members will be able to share experiences, help plan courses of action, deal with day-to-day stresses of the situation, reinforce your attitudes and otherwise support you.
When it comes to harassment, no two people are created equal. In truth, there is no right way to respond to harassing behaviors. However, asserting the right to be treated with dignity and respect is usually the best course of action. If one chooses to remain mum, not only does that reaffirm those feelings of susceptibility but it also successfully acquiesces to the strategy of the harasser by guaranteeing that the power tricks will continue to infect the world.