After conducting more than 250 workplace investigations and presenting dozens of harassment prevention training workshops, I’ve concluded that if employees could understand just two key points, harassment incidents in the workplace – both actual and perceived – would be significantly reduced.
The reason is that most accused harassers are not bad people: they just don’t get it. And if they did get it, most of them would not engage in behaviors that lead to harassment complaints against them. This is true from top to bottom in every organization. For those with power, the rules apply even more strongly.
So what are these two key points?
First, it is essential to maintain professional boundaries in the workplace at all times. Workplace boundaries are different than those on the outside. Work is a place where you perform tasks within a hierarchy in exchange for money. As such, at its emotional core, work is a serious undertaking and while there, people are sensitive to anything that might threaten their livelihood. Television shows notwithstanding, work is not a place to play practical jokes, discuss one’s relationship problems and sex life, gossip about others, or mess with people’s sense of self. You are free to do these things, but it is at your peril: if you cross the line at the wrong time or with the wrong person, you will pay.
You can be friendly, laugh, and have some fun at work. Just be sure to remain professional and remember that you’re at work to do a job, not to get your deeper social and emotional needs met.
Second, you never know if your behaviors are actually welcome. You may think that Sue likes your hugs or neck massages because she seems to welcome them and doesn’t object. And after all, you’re just a friendly “touchy feely” person with no ill intent. You may think that Sam likes your racist or sexist jokes because he seems to welcome them and doesn’t object. And aren’t jokes a good way to create a personal bond?
But Sue and Sam may really dislike these behaviors and the impact on them may be very different from your intent. Or the behaviors may have been welcomed at first, but no longer. Then why don’t they speak up? They don’t like confrontation, fear ostracism or retribution, don’t want to hurt your feelings, or believe they need to keep you on their side to succeed at work. At some point, however, Sue and Sam may decide that your behaviors are hurting their ability to do their jobs and it won’t be you they tell. It will be the boss. If you’re not sure you should say or do something, don’t.
Of course, harassment prevention training includes other valuable information. (Like bosses should not have personal relationships with subordinates unless they plan to marry them.) If everyone leaves understanding just these two key points, however, the training may actually work.
Did I miss something you think is equally important? ~Amy Stephson