Two significant events pushed harassment from the shadows and into the spotlight: #MeToo and #TimesUp.

The headlines that followed delivered a sobering message: Harassment is more of an issue than most thought. Yet, it remains an issue when employees, managers and business owners have an “It happens, but it doesn’t happen here” point of view.

Case in point, a late 2017 NBC News-SurveyMonkey poll revealed that 81% of those surveyed believe sexual harassment is a problem for U.S. businesses, yet 91% believe it doesn’t occur at their specific location.

At the same time, a Stop Street Harassment survey in 2018 revealed that 81% of women have experienced harassment in their lifetimes, with 38% stating it occurred in the workplace.

No matter what form harassment takes, it is unacceptable. Period. In the workplace or otherwise.

The first step to creating change: Acknowledge harassment is a reality. Only then can it truly be addressed. And it starts by recognizing the forms of harassment and then cultivating a culture of intolerance.

36% of companies offer no form of harassment training. On the positive side, 51% shared their companies implemented new harassment policies in the past 12 months. (2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study)

Sexual Harassment Takes Center Stage, Unfortunately

Here are a few more somber statistics from the Hiscox study: 35% of those surveyed feel they have been harassed at work – for women, the number jumps to 41% That’s four out of 10 women saying they have been harassed in the office. The survey also ranked the following as the five most common forms of work harassment:

  • Gender/Sex
  • Race/Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Age

In legal terms, harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination involving hostile conduct toward a person within a protected category – including gender, age, race or color, national origin, religion, disability and genetic information. It can occur in person, in writing, by email, by text message or any other form of communication, and it can be physical, verbal or visual.

Sexual harassment is the most common form of harassment in the workplace, and there are two specific types:

Quid pro quo — “This for that” in Latin, it’s an exchange of sexual services for gain or avoidance of loss. It occurs when anyone in a position of authority threatens or takes employment action based on an employee’s willingness or unwillingness to participate in a sexual relationship.

Hostile work environment — Any form of sexual harassment creating an environment of intimidation toward a targeted individual. Examples of hostile harassment include but are not limited to:

  • Demands/pressure for sexual favors
  • Unwelcome comments
  • Offensive jokes
  • Threats
  • Insults or name-calling
  • Sexual propositions
  • Unwelcome physical contact
  • Sharing derogatory pictures

Are You Aware of These Other Forms of Harassment?

While sexual harassment is what most people think of when workplace harassment occurs, there are several other forms that warrant your attention.

Discriminatory harassment. Victims are targeted with hostility regarding a protected class. Racial discrimination takes the form of slurs and intolerance based on cultural differences. Gender discrimination most often occurs when men or women assume positions traditionally perceived to be roles for the opposite gender. For example, men as nurses or women not being capable of “doing a man’s job.” Other forms of discrimination include age-, religion- and disability-based harassment, where intolerance toward a protected class is consistently and aggressively exhibited.

Personal harassment. Basically, bullying an individual who is not in a protected class. Inappropriate jokes, humiliating comments and any other behavior that intimidates is considered a personal attack. For example, the clothes someone wears or the hobbies they participate in can be fodder for bullies.

Physical harassment. When personal harassment escalates, it can become an intentional physical encounter, such as tripping, shoving or bumping into someone with the goal of intimidation or injury. Workplace violence can include verbal threats of harm as well as deliberate destruction of personal property.

Psychological harassment. For bullies who don’t cross the line into physical contact, their weapon of choice is words or actions that are intended to belittle the victim. Examples include spreading rumors or disparaging someone in front of coworkers for no apparent reason. We’re all familiar with the teacher’s pet concept, and we probably know of someone who catches the brunt of a superior’s or co-worker’s anger.

65% of respondents stated they believe men perpetuating sexual harassment against women usually get away with it. Only 29% said men are usually punished. (Washington Post-ABC News)

Have a Policy and Plan to Combat Harassment

Regardless of the type of harassment, the response should be the same across the board: Address it swiftly and firmly.

Unfortunately, many small business owners are unaware of harassment in the workplace. As mentioned earlier, many believe “it simply doesn’t happen here.” But are you sure? Ask yourself two questions:

  • Do we have a harassment policy?
  • Do we enforce our harassment policy?

Harassment is a byproduct of a business’s culture of tolerance. If you don’t recognize the possibility for its existence, it’s probably happening under your nose. Those who harass and get away with it are bound to harass again. They usually are empowered to continue if they are not punished for their behavior. At the same time, unpunished behavior begets more of the same behavior from others, too.

So, take a long, hard look: Does your culture encourage or discourage harassment? If you’re not sure, the following guidelines should help you develop a commitment to intolerance.

  1. Clarify your policy. If you don’t have a policy, create one as soon as possible. Having your policy in writing is critical. It’s even more important that it’s shared with all staff, understood and enforced.
  2. Involve everyone. Even if you have a policy, it’s a good idea to review it annually with a group of employees who represent every level – staff, managers, supervisors and leadership. This sends a strong message that you care about your employees. If they are involved in the process, you may learn of harassment issues you didn’t know about. Make sure you encourage staff to share feedback on how your policies are working and if there are opportunities for improvement.
  3. Reduce risk through education. Assume that harassment exists and keep an eye out for it. Make it clear that you want to foster an inclusive environment of acceptance. The best way to reduce risk is to educate your staff through anti-harassment training. If everyone is aware of what is and isn’t tolerated, you greatly reduce the risk of harassment rearing its ugly head.
  4. Discourage bad behavior by setting an example. It’s one thing to have a policy in writing, but it’s critical that you enforce your guidelines by intervening immediately and resolving issues quickly. This sends a strong message to offenders that their actions won’t be tolerated. It also lets other employees know that you have their backs should they be a target in the future.
  5. Only 32% of American women who experienced workplace sexual harassment strongly agree they could report an incident to their employers without fear. (2018 Marketplace-Edison Research Poll)

  6. Encourage complaints and support victims. It’s best to have a system for complaints, such as a designated supervisor or HR person. Employees need to know you take their complaints seriously, so never question a complaint by asking “are you sure that’s what really happened?” Employees may not share harassment incidents if they don’t believe you truly care about protecting them. If you tell them you’re 100% intolerant of harassment, be there for them when they need your support most.
  7. Resolve all incidents swiftly and consistently. This is critical. You can’t say you’re intolerant if it takes weeks or months to address an issue. Demonstrate that you have a clear path for offenders – whether that’s a written warning, suspension without pay or termination.
If you’re like many small business owners, you probably don’t have a dedicated HR staff position — which means the responsibility falls to you. Having a policy in place is a critical first step, followed by a process that encourages complaint filing and resolution.

We Can Help You Prevent and Respond to Harassment

You don’t have to start from scratch. We’re here to assist you with HR resources that help your business thrive. The Harassment Training Smart App provides training for managers and employees to gain a better understanding of harassment through relatable examples—with special consideration given for sexual harassment.

Eliminating the potential for harassment is a commitment – we can guide you in addressing problems proactively for the benefit of all your employees.

Key Takeaways
  • Acknowledging that harassment exists is an important first step.
  • Quid pro quo and hostile work environment are two types of sexual harassment.
  • Harassment is illegal when it targets protected classes.
  • Sexual harassment isn’t the only prevalent form of harassment.
  • It’s critically important to have a harassment policy and enforce it.
  • Creating a culture of intolerance is paramount to combating harassment.