Legal

The inside track on tackling workplace harassment

11 Apr 2019 By Gillian Maclellan

Gillian MacLellan provides practical tips for HR professionals on minimising workplace harassment

Workplace harassment is one of the most important people-related risk issues for organisations; particularly when the full extent of that risk may be unknown. Until recently, the true scale of workplace harassment had largely been hidden due to a reluctance to report – but this has begun to change. The #MeToo movement has effectively lifted the lid on the scale of the problem. 

Start with culture 

Getting the culture right is a key issue. Achieving genuine and sustained change will involve multiple strands and will take time. 

Setting the tone from the top is crucial, and key stakeholders must walk the walk. If they don’t, they must be (and be seen to be) held accountable. Harassment is often an abuse of power and having ‘untouchable’ members of staff will prevent real change. The right culture must then filter down through the organisation. Managers at all levels must be able and confident to manage and intervene in inappropriate behaviour. 

'Banter' can be particularly difficult here, and some organisations find scenario-based training helpful. This can also help with the reported ‘Pence effect’: individuals, particularly senior male employees, shying away from mentoring women due to concerns their support may be unwelcome and lead to harassment allegations. A clear understanding of what is and is not acceptable can prevent this ‘protective’ behaviour.  

Helping people come forward

Encouraging individuals to bring concerns forward helps resolve issues early rather than allowing them to simmer away undetected. If resources are available, having multiple routes to raise concerns can help. 

Then there is the problem of the silent bystander. Observing harassment and not speaking up or intervening, particularly at a senior level, can be as damaging as the behaviour itself – by implicitly condoning it. This is a complex issue and needs a tiered response, including education and communication to ensure all employees know the standards and their role in achieving these. Accessible reporting routes which are perceived as ‘safe’, effective and free from repercussions are essential to this process.

How can you support people?

It's crucial that someone who comes forward with an allegation of harassment at work is supported and feels they are listened to. The same goes for the person who is accused. Clear policies and procedures can help with this. This could include mental health support if resources allow. 

Support for any witnesses is also important. Witnesses can feel ‘frozen out’ if they are never contacted again after providing a statement. Although this has to be balanced with confidentiality concerns, even a neutral statement thanking the witness and stating that the matter is closed can be helpful. 

Practical tips

Fundamentally, a proactive approach to harassment issues and treating this as a cultural priority.

Each organisation will need to design their own approach to reflect its needs and structure 

Refresh (or develop) policies and ensure they work alongside other relevant initiatives such as mental health at work. Consider launching these with a senior project sponsor in an engaging way 

Update training for staff and HR, and consider including bystander training

Consider having multiple ways of bringing forward complaints (and encouraging their use), and make sure you ask what the person raising the complaint wants to achieve through the process

While every organisation is at its own stage in the journey of dealing with workplace harassment, it is now clear that this is not simply a risk issue but also the right thing to do in terms of driving an inclusive working culture. 

Gillian MacLellan is an employment partner with CMS

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