Beyond the Buzzwords: Recognizing Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is prohibited under several Federal Acts (or laws) — these laws prohibit discrimination based on sex, age, disability, religion, disability and many other factors. Beyond the buzzwords of legal documents, however, the threshold of harassment can be sometimes hard to establish. Here are some examples:

  • Emily is known for being demanding and direct — she holds her staff accountable for producing exceptional results. Some staff have accused her behavior as harassment, while others see it as pressing for high performance in a no-nonsense way.
  • Matt is unusually friendly with employees — touching them during meetings and regularly hugging people. This makes many women, and a few gay men, uncomfortable. Is it harassment?
  • Over the past few months, Jane has been arriving late, without warning or advanced notice. David is now checking on her arrival time daily and regularly states the need to be on time. Jane is telling other employees that she is feeling harassed by these check-ins.

What can leaders and supervisors do to avoid crossing a perceived or actual line with employees and customers?

  • Consider Intent and Impact: Always remember that your impact on people may differ from what you meant. Regularly assess how you are impacting other with your words and actions — if your “holding people accountable” just increases anxiety and fear, your impact may differ from your intent.
  • Ask for Permission: If you are someone who enjoys informal physical contact more than others, recognize and stay aware of that difference. Not everyone wants a hug! Observe how others interact and ask for permission before touching — or just hold back a bit.
  • Check Motives and Fairness: Ask yourself if you are holding some people to task more than others, and what may be driving these differences. While you don’t have to treat everyone identically, because different people have different needs, you do need to treat people fairly.
  • Get Feedback: For leaders and supervisors concerned about how others perceive them, many organizations offer a 360-feedback process to gather feedback from higher-ups, peers and direct reports. These can be early warning systems for those in power.

Harassment is serious. Because it is also inherently interpersonal and social, it can be hard to establish in objective terms. Understanding relationship dynamics can help prevent unintended consequences and accusations of harassment.