8 ways to prevent and mitigate workplace harassment and bullying

Without proper prevention, harassment can lead to low productivity and high employee turnover

8 ways to prevent and mitigate workplace harassment and bullying

Workplace harassment most HR professionals don’t want to hear about but must be prepared for. It’s part of what the Milwaukee-based Crisis Prevention Institute describes as a “continuum of behaviours” that can lead to more egregious behaviour and, ultimately, workplace violence.

Without proper prevention and mitigation, workplace harassment can lead to a toxic workplace, low productivity, and high employee turnover.

Read more: New harassment regulations: What you need to know

How prevalent is workplace harassment in Canada?

Statistics Canada’s 2016 General Social Survey on Canadians at Work reported that 19 per cent of Canadian women and 13 per cent of Canadian men had experienced harassment in their workplace at some point in the previous year. Workplace harassment can consist of behaviours such as verbal abuse and verbal bullying, humiliation, threats, physical violence, and unwanted sexual attention, both in person and on digital platforms such as work email and social media.

Verbal abuse and humiliating behaviour were the two most common types of harassment cited in the Statistics Canada survey.

A survey by the Queen’s University School of Business found that more than one-half of Canadian workers have experienced or witnessed workplace harassment.

Below are eight ways HR professionals can prevent and mitigate workplace harassment and bullying.

Read more: New federal harassment rules can apply to everyone

Review policies and procedures

An organization’s policies should encourage a respectful and professional work environment by stating clear expectations and possible consequences of breaching them. These policies should be regularly reviewed to ensure that they stand up to changing legal requirements and the evolution of technology and workplace culture.

Create (and enforce) an anti-harassment policy

Respectful workplace policies are good to have, but organizations should also put in place policies that directly address harassment and bullying. An anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy should set out what type of behaviour constitutes workplace harassment — including examples and types of bullying — and the process on how employees can report harassment or bullying and to whom.

The roles of managers, human resources, and executives, if applicable, in the process should also be spelled out so everyone is aware of what is expected of them.

Harassment is still a problem that is hurting employers’ ability to attract and retain talent, an HR lawyer says.

Easy access to communication channels

Workplace harassment can be difficult, so organizations should make it as easy as possible for employees to find someone to talk to, whether to file a complaint or just to seek advice — and for the latter, an element of anonymity could help. Some organizations have dedicated telephone lines or email addresses for reporting harassment and bullying, but if that isn’t feasible, employee surveys are a relatively affordable method for keeping the lines of communication open.

All the information on policies and processes should be easily accessible for employees, such as through online resources, posting in common areas of the workplace, and in employee handbooks distributed to all staff.

Build support systems

A positive work environment doesn’t just have rules prohibiting harassment and bullying, but also ensures that employees who are subjected to it receive proper support. In addition to an anti-harassment policy that sets out how to report harassment, it’s a good practice to have a support system for victims of bullying and harassment. This could include making counselling services available, mental health leave, and management staying in regular contact.

In cases of sexual harassment or mental health issues, the organization may have a legal obligation to investigate accommodation of some sort. If the harasser isn’t fired, this could involve separating the harasser and the victim in some way.

Establish training programs for employees

Policies are only as good as an organization’s commitment to enforcing and applying them. Developing an anti-harassment policy is only the first step to preventing workplace harassment — it must be communicated to employees so they are aware of the expectations, discipline, and reporting procedure. Simply sending out the policy or posting it somewhere isn’t enough — employees should receive dedicated training on all aspects of the policy with the opportunity to ask questions, and sign an acknowledgement that they have received the training and are aware of the expectations.

Training can elaborate on various elements of the policy, including specifying more examples of unacceptable behaviour, how a third-party witness to harassment should proceed, and the range of disciplinary measures.

Train managers and supervisors

Management plays a key role in the consistent enforcement of policies and the fight against workplace harassment. Managers and supervisors are the front-line representatives of the organization and are the ones who employees deal with on a day-to-day basis. They should receive specific training for the part they play in enforcement, what to do if they receive a complaint, and how to identify harassment and bullying, as well as helping to ensure that employees are trained on the policy.

In addition, it should be made clear that those in leadership roles set an example for employees with regards to respectful behaviour in the workplace and if they themselves perpetrate harassment or bullying, discipline could be more severe.

Form a culture that fosters professionalism

Workplace harassment and bullying can often be a symptom of an overall workplace culture that permits bad behaviour and lacks professionalism. Culture comes from the top down, so leaders within an organization should be encouraged to set an example in their behaviour and not accept bad behaviour from anyone, be it colleagues, subordinates, or customers. A positive, respectful, and professional workplace culture is less likely to empower a potential harasser or bully.

Process complaints fairly

An anti-harassment policy should establish not only the process for reporting harassment, but also the procedure for investigating it. A fair and transparent investigation procedure is a key element of an anti-harassment policy, so employees who are involved in a complaint are kept abreast of developments. Establishing an investigation process — including who will perform the investigation, notification of investigative interviews, and time limits — and following it to the letter will ensure fairness for everyone involved and help avoid legal liability.

Disciplinary options for various levels of misconduct should also be established and the process should be consistently followed every time. If those involved know what to expect, there should be more satisfaction with the process, protection of employee health and safety, and a better chance to repair any damage to the organization’s culture.

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