Harassment can present itself in the workplace through a variety of behaviors. Some may be blatantly obvious, such as an overtly sexual joke or inappropriately touching a co-worker. But others may not be as clear. Intentional or not, understanding what constitutes workplace harassment can help employees avoid unacceptable behavior in the office – including use of seemingly harmless words and phrases that could be viewed as harassing to someone’s race, gender, religion or age.
The definition of harassment is unwelcome verbal or physical conduct, including written and electronic communication, directed toward an individual or a group. Specifically in the workplace, harassment is measured by the intent or success of interfering with an individual’s work performance, or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.
Most organizations use the “reasonable person standard” when it comes to appropriate behavior in the workplace. The “reasonable person” reflects how most people would behave in any given situation. A reasonable person most likely wouldn’t make a lewd gesture at work or share a joke about someone’s race, gender or religion.
However, there are some common words or phrases that have long been part of our vernacular, the origins of which could make someone in the office feel uncomfortable, and therefore be classified as harassment. For example, the phrase “no can do,” which can seem innocuous to some, was introduced into the U.S. language to mock Chinese individuals, and “long time no see” mocks Native Americans. Both phrases fit the definition of harassment, but by no means are exhaustive examples. There are dozens of other words and phrases that have roots in bigotry and racial oppression. Understanding and avoiding these offensive sayings will prevent harassment in the workplace – intended or not.
Human resources professionals have been trained to identify and address inappropriate speech and behavior in the workplace, but cannot be the entire organization’s eyes and ears. HR pros must also educate employees and define acceptable office etiquette. Here are a few examples of how that can be done:
- Lead by example: Supervisors and managers should set a precedent of acceptable behavior in the office.
- Define unacceptable behavior: Official policies should clearly outline harassing behaviors with examples of unacceptable conduct in the office.
- Provide harassment awareness training: Teach employees about heightening their level of sensitivity while increasing awareness in the workplace.
- Speak up: Encourage employees to openly discuss their feelings with their co-workers to let them know when they feel uncomfortable. If the words or actions persist, they should report it to HR.
The bottom line is to never ignore harassment in the workplace. If an employee speaks out and the issue is corrected, it will create a more positive, and ultimately, a more productive workplace.
Ulliance, an international professional services company headquartered in Troy, provides Human Effectiveness Training workshops, including harassment awareness, to help organizations increase productivity and retention. For more information about Ulliance’s Human Effectiveness Training, please visit www.ulliance.com or call 866-648-8326.