How harassment happens in the workplace
Harassment can occur and might continue to occur when clear boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behaviour is not understood by members of a group. It is also important that members of such a group understand the consequences of poor behaviour and that victims are able to access support.
An organisation should therefore ensure that they enact and comply with the following:
- Issuing a statement of intent to tackle harassment at the organisation.
- Provide a clear and universal definition of bullying and sexual harassment and provide examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour across the organisation.
- Any policies should cite legal statutes, which will need to be country-specific.
- A policy clarifying roles, responsibilities and duties for employers, workers and management as well as bodies representing workers
- These policies should also cover how they are interpreted in formal settings, e.g. in organisation offices, as well as in informal settings, e.g. off-duty social functions.
- Providing multiple avenues of support to targets as well as alleged perpetrators.
- Creating a system to monitor and evaluate effectiveness of any policies implemented.
Bullying at the workplace
Harassment at work can take on many forms. One form is bullying, which often consists of the following:
- A target is exposed to direct or indirect, unwanted and negative actions
- These acts are repeated and regular
- These acts take place over a significant period of time
- There is an actual or perceived imbalance of power between a bully and a target
The EU-Directive 2002/73/EC defines sexual harassment as a situation: “where any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of sexual nature occurs, with a purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person”.
Sexual harassment can take on some of the following forms:
- Non-verbal: e.g. sexually suggestive gestures, display of sexual material
- Verbal: e.g. sexually suggestive comments or jokes
- Physical: e.g. touching, hugging, kissing, rape
- Cyber: e.g. offensive, sexually explicit emails, SMS messages or advances on social media
Before taking any further actions, it may be helpful to write down answers to the following questions.
- What exactly are the facts surrounding harassment?
- Has there been a pattern of harassment over time?
- What seems to be the objective of the harassment?
- Who is harassing you?
Advice for victims of workplace harassment
Firstly, it is important to understand the ways the legal system for one’s respective country works. It might be helpful to acquire further information with regards to:
- Official organisations that offer assistance to targets of workplace harassment.
- Any judicial or administrative procedures that can be used.
- Any sources of financial support to help victims with the legal process.
- The types of remedies available, such as financial compensation.
- The process that determines if workplace harassment has taken place.
- Any other additional sources of guidance and help.
Preliminary steps to build a case
- Keep a note of examples where you feel you have been treated unfairly especially in cases where there was not a good reason.
- Compile a log of events that have occurred. As an example, if one was subjected to bullying or sexual harassment or other kinds of abuse, make a record of what was said or done, giving details of the perpetrator, potential witnesses and the approximate time and date.
- Keep records of any further information that you feel may be relevant.
- Where you feel that you are one of many victims, communicate with the other victims and ask them to compile their own log of information.
Resolving problems without taking legal action
In some cases, a better solution can be found without taking legal action. This might be a more suitable approach if harassment is only coming from one individual as opposed to a larger group. This can take the form of confronting a perpetrator and telling them that you feel their behaviour is unacceptable and that they ought to stop. Where necessary inform them that you will take the matter further if their behaviour continues. It may be easier to approach this individual with the help of colleagues.
This is becoming a more viable option as organisations are increasingly developing procedures for dealing with complaints from employees as well as customers and clients. It is therefore important to know if your organisation has these systems in place as it is sometimes expected that matters are attempted to be resolved this way before undertaking legal routes.
Deciding whether to take legal action
There are costs to pursuing legal action, this can be in the form of increased stress, time and money. However, forms of support do exist such as agencies that provide advice and assistance and, in some cases, they can offer full legal assistance and help bring your case.
You may be able to find further guidance from:
- Local advice or legal support agencies.
- Professional association or Trade Unions
- A national body that is responsible for dealing with workplace harassment cases.
- NGOs that are working to protect specific groups or tackle workplace harassment.
If one decides to proceed with a legal case, one might be able to explore the possibility of a case being settled outside of court. In some jurisdictions one might be able to settle a complaint through accepting an apology or a sum of money. In some situations, this may be favourable to engaging in a full court case.