By Matthew Bradford
Article courtesy of Ontario Stone, Sand & Gravel Association's Avenues magazine (Fall 2018)
It's a passing insult or a joke that's gone too far. It's an inappropriate gesture or a nickname that's overstayed its welcome.
Whether seemingly harmless or threatening in nature, harassment in the workplace can take root without warning and erode a company from the inside out, and no company is immune from the risk.
"A lot of companies think they're fine because nothing has been reported, and they're always shocked when it eventually surfaces," says Leena Paul, Account Manager with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS). "The fact is harassment is very common in the workplace and the last thing you want to do is wait around for something to happen before you do anything about it."
There are always telltale signs. A silent employee here or repeated insult there. The problem is co-workers often reach a level of familiarity with one another that makes it hard for people to speak up when they feel a line has been crossed.
"Things can escalate when we become too comfortable in how we talk with one another and we forget that we are, in fact, in a workplace and there is a code of conduct and a behaviour we have to follow," explains Paul. "One day we can be laughing at what we think is a simple joke and the next no one is laughing because someone has been pushed too far, and it becomes a case of harassment that's not been dealt with because that person doesn't want to be the buzzkill."
When left to fester, harassment can impact morale, impede productivity, and have negative ripple effects on relationships beyond the office walls. In more extreme cases, resentment can spark instances of violence that leave even more lasting scars. "Experiencing violence or harassment in the workplace can have huge effects not only on an individual, but his or her family and outside relationships. We want to do absolutely everything we can to prevent that," stresses Paul.
Like every organizational risk, the best strategy is always prevention. Creating a violence and harassment-free workplace culture is like any other project. It requires a strong foundation, a buy-in from all parties, and consistent quality assurance. It's not about forcing co-workers to stop being friendly with one another or to behave unnaturally; it's about bringing everyone together to create an environment of respect - one in which people feel empowered to speak up when and if they feel things have gone too far.
Every organization that employs more than five workers must, by law, have a violence and harassment policy that defines its commitment to providing a workplace free of violence and harassment. The policy must make clear the definition of workplace violence and harassment (detailed at: www.ontario.ca/page/understand-law-workplace-violence-and-harassment) and the repercussions for instigating one or the other.
Setting the policy is just the first step. The next is to take tangible steps to reinforce that commitment. This includes creating programs that outline the actions someone can take when they feel they have been harassed and clearly define who they can report to, what a violence or harassment investigation will entail, and what they can expect from the process. A program should also address more nuanced scenarios, such as an employee being harassed by their supervisor or someone else in authority.
That said, a workplace violence and harassment program is meaningless if it's left to collect dust on a shelf. Companies must include a training component for genuine culture change to occur. And yet, notes Paul, "Many companies don't take it that far, i.e., to the training element. They have these great policies and procedures, but no one knows about them so they are essentially useless. You need to train your employees on your program so they feel comfortable with those procedures, know what to do, and they aren't afraid to report something. They [need] to know there is a clear commitment in place by their leaders that says they will not tolerate violence or harassment in the workplace."
Training goes beyond calling up a company like WSPS and booking the lunch room for a session. To be effective, says Paul, training must be driven by the organization's specific policies and procedures. "I can come in and conduct generic training, but all I'm going to talk about is legislation, which is going to mean nothing if you don't have anything in place," she says. "And if you don't have those policies or programs in place, that's fine. That just means we need to take a few steps back and go from there."
In the end, it's not so much about building a culture of health and safety as it is about nurturing one. It takes consistent, day-to-day efforts and support to keep that culture alive, and that only happens when the message rings clear from the top. "If your program isn't supported by your senior management, it's not going to happen. Simple as that. If the organization's leaders aren't engaged or taking it seriously, their attitudes are going to trickle down to everyone else and stop whatever progress you've made," emphasizes Paul.
It also bears repeating that a proactive approach is imperative when it comes to mitigating the risks. As Paul advises: "Don't wait or bury your head in the sand thinking it's not going to happen in your workplace, because odds are it's already happening without you noticing, or it will happen down the road, if you don't address it beforehand. Preventing violence and harassment in the workplace needs to be a priority."