The hashtag #metoo has done an amazing job at sparking the discussion about harassment. However, there has been little discussion about what you should do if you find yourself subjected to harassment in the workplace. Do you suck it up and consider it “paying your dues”? Do you find a new job? How do you file a complaint? How do you know if its’ harassment and not just a personal conflict?
The legal definition of harassment is the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands that create a hostile work environment. The nature and purposes of harassment may be prejudice, to force you to quit your job, or simply to derive pleasure from your obvious discomfort. Whatever the reason, it is always characterised by a corporate or social power differential.
Managers who like to “throw their weight around” and fellow staff members who collectively snub an employee are both examples of harassment. While playground bullies are easy to spot and challenge, workplace bullies and our attitudes towards bullying among adults is much more ambiguous. Due to a lack of education about the nature of harassment, many graduates often struggle to identify it and are at an even greater loss about what to do about it.This article is the first in a four-part series where we will look at different forms of workplace harassment and how you can identify and navigate hostile work environments. At Alexander Partners we believe that nobody should ever simply put up with workplace harassment. We support our clients in finding solutions to their workplace dilemmas that not only hold abusers accountable but also protects the reputation and aspirations of the targets of abuse.
As an overview, there are six general pieces of advice we give to every person who is struggling with workplace harassment. These are applicable regardless of the nature or form of the harassment.
- Keep doing your job. Don’t allow the stress of the situation to throw you off your game. You came into that company with a game plan. Don’t get sloppy and start arriving at work late or taking excessive days off. Continue to do your job to the best of your ability. Failing to do your job only makes you look incapable or lazy and gives management an excuse to fire you. If the harassment escalates to the point where you fear for your physical safety, it’s time to involve the authorities. Never ignore your safety.
- Find your resources. Check the employer handbook; there is probably a department set up to handle accusations of harassment or abuse. Where appropriate speak with your union rep. Find out what the official company policy is about workplace conduct, harassment, and conflict resolution.
- Document EVERYTHING. Don’t get caught in a situation where it’s your word against his or hers. When you have an uncomfortable encounter with your abuser, write an email either to that person or to a supervisor detailing what happened and how it made you feel. Print and save the email and any replies that you may receive. This paper trail proves that you informed the appropriate people promptly. In any event, be sure to keep a running journal that details dates, times, and names for every incident of harassment.
- Report it. Report the harassment to the appropriate authorities. That may be your boss, a department head, or a governmental agency. Don’t be afraid to file the report. You have every right to protect yourself from harassment.
- Work together. Once you ask around you will most likely find that you are not the first or the only victim of harassment. Having multiple voices corroborating each other’s stories is not only empowering and uplifting, but it makes it much harder for the abuser to dismiss you as an outlier. Other victims may not want to come forward with a formal complaint but may be willing to write down their accounts or testify to things that they have seen.
- Get support. If you must take legal action (employer tribunal) against your abuser or employer you are going to need legal and emotional support. Make sure that you tell your family and friends what’s going on at work. Going it alone is stressful and counterproductive.
You should never ignore workplace harassment. Don’t be discouraged by people who say “that’s just how s/he is.” Actions or comments that demean, humiliate, threaten or embarrass you are unacceptable under any circumstances. Quitting your job may not be an option, but that doesn’t mean you are powerless. Abusers are bullies at heart, and bullies are usually looking for people who can’t or won’t fight back. In some cases, the act of filing a complaint is enough to make them back off. But what if that simply isn’t enough? In part two we will discuss how to handle retaliatory behaviours and mediation.