5 Essential Steps for Preventing Harassment in The Workplace

No one wants to work in a place where harassment is tolerated. But many leaders aren’t so sure that preventing bad behavior is even possible — at least without inundating employees in legal paperwork and reprimands, killing any sense of a casual office vibe in the process.

The most important components of harassment prevention aren’t handbooks or hours of mandatory videos. The best methods are simpler, and they don’t threaten the sense of friendliness and informality in your office.

They do require persistence and commitment over the long-term. But with the following simple changes made over time, you can completely eliminate harassment at your workplace.

1.Define Harassment

As we mentioned in our post on “operationalizing” civility, words like “harassment” can mean many things to many people. That’s why it’s important to actually clarify what the word means within your organization.

The main thing to make clear to employees is that harassment doesn’t mean just the blatant, lawsuit-inducing, cringeworthy or shocking behaviors that make the headlines. It also includes the more subtle unwelcoming behaviors that go unchecked and pave the way for more egregious behavior. Harassers test reactions to their behavior all the time and continue to push the limits little by little until the problem has escalated to dangerous levels.

Ways to reduce harassment at work

That’s why it’s important to make sure that employees understand two things. First, that harassing behavior encompasses all kinds of behavior that makes people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. Secondly, that this kind of subtle behavior will be recognized as a problem and punished as necessary.

Your employees should understand that harassment doesn’t have to be done or said directly to someone (think about blaring an offensive talk show host in the workplace) or even done on purpose or with malicious intent (check out our post on microaggressions) to qualify as harassment.

The goal isn’t to throw the rulebook at your employees and have them analyzing and dissecting their every move. You’re not waiting around to pounce on specific rule-breakers. You’re trying to prevent the problem behavior from happening in the first place.

2. Require Employee Practice

Too many harassment training programs focus on the “awareness” part of the equation and leave out the “action” part. The truth is that all of your employees should know exactly what to do when they witness something that makes them uncomfortable, or when they’re confronted with having done something that made someone else uncomfortable.

To help people understand how to react to these behaviors, you need to help them practice the scenarios. The goal should be to show employees how to handle harassing behavior once they see it, whether they’re the victim, a bystander, or even the alleged perpetrator.

ELI’s training has practice modules in what we call a “flight simulator” for this reason. Interactive practice puts your employees in the scenarios that they’re likely to face in real life and gives them a chance to practice the “correct” response in a safe space.

For more, download our bonus resource: 3 Best Practices for Documenting Harassment Claims

Without this practice, it’s certainly likely that your employees will “freeze” in the moment or blurt out a response that’s rooted in surprise or in emotion, or follow their instincts to run away and ignore the behavior. That’s what makes training such an integral part of a harassment prevention program. But only the right kind of training will get this job done. Check-the-box training that requires no interaction is not likely to work.

It’s important for all employees to understand that preventing harassment in the workplace is a shared job that each and every one of them plays a part in. It’s not just the role of victims to speak up. It’s not just the job of potential harassers to keep their mouths shut. It’s on each and every one of us. When they’re playing the role of each part in a harassment example, they’ll be able to empathize even better with people in each role.

3. Focus on Leadership

All the knowledge and practice in the world won’t help you create a welcoming, civil workplace if employees get conflicting messages about behavior from company leadership.

As we’ve written about in regard to the #MeToo movement, plenty of companies have made their harassment policies clear and done everything right on paper when it comes to good behavior. That didn’t stop certain individuals, so-called “super harassers,” from preying on their victims.

In order to eliminate harassment in your workplace, leaders must exemplify and prioritize civil behavior (and that includes enforcing disciplinary measures for people who don’t shape up).

For more, download this bonus: 3 Best Practices for Documenting Harassment Claims

Company leaders must personally exemplify the kind of behavior that they want their employees to exhibit. That means welcoming all complaints and bad news and listening respectfully when those complaints and bad news are delivered. This will foster a workplace culture where people feel safe complaining about things, and issues won’t fester for the long-term.

4. Stay Consistent

As Steve Paskoff mentioned in his recent column, one of the more essential ingredients for success in eradicating harassment is consistency: “Changing the long-standing behavior that defines your culture doesn’t happen overnight. Your efforts must be continuous, enduring, and never-ending.”

Many leaders are happy to shine a spotlight on the issue of harassment prevention for a few weeks or months, especially after a flare-up or close legal call. Then, they let things go back to business as usual. This doesn’t necessarily happen on purpose; other priorities slowly creep in over time.

In order to avoid this fate at your organization, keep your tactics simple and weave them into the existing fabric of your organizational culture.

Focus on fixing a few problem behaviors that you’ve noticed on staff first. Identify those behaviors’ positive opposites (we call these “value-linked behaviors”) and encourage those behaviors instead of expecting employees to comb through a handbook of “don’t”s.

Find ways to measure progress toward these initiatives and set goals to meet them, just like you would with any other business initiative.

Finally, make these goals and initiatives part of daily routines or other parts of established organizational culture.

5. A Note on the Importance of Initiative

Leaders want to run their companies and organizations, not stand around like playground monitors making sure that no one throws sand.

After all, leaders wonder, why can’t employees just handle conflicts on their own? They’re adults. Is it so hard for employees to understand what it means to treat each other with respect?

Unfortunately, you can’t rely on employees to take the initiative with respecting each other — at least not any more than you’d expect them to take the initiative on their business objectives without any oversight from leadership. Civility is not likely to happen on its own in an organizational culture.

If you want to learn more about how to identify value-linked behaviors, practice them, and measure your goals toward their progress until values are deeply ingrained in your culture, we’d love to help. At ELI, our mission is long-lasting cultural change for organizations of all sizes. Our methods are interactive and award-winning, and we work with organizations of all sizes and budgets. Click here to request a quote.

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