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A guide to workplace bullying & harassment

Everyone knows the universal archetype of a bully. The taller stronger tougher boy in the playground at school who pushes you off the swing set, or tells you you’re ugly. But bullying doesn’t stop in the playground. Workplace bullying and harassment is far more commonplace than you think. Workplace bullying and harassment is not just a once-off snide comment or mean remark. It includes mental and physical harm to a person, and is repeated and unnecessary.

As a person, we all hope we will call out mean or malicious behaviour when we see it. As an employer, it is a duty. It falls under a requirement to ensure employees are as safe as reasonable possible while under the care of their workplace. Risks to physical and mental health imposed by bullying are therefore of utmost importance.

If bullying behaviours are found to exist within your workplace, there are a number of steps which should be followed:

  1. Record the details of the incident
    Who was involved, when the incident occurred, has it happened before? How many times? Who observed it? Include as many details as you can. There should be a file and evidence to refer to if further action needs to be taken, or you aren’t believed.
  2. Record statements from the parties involved
    The same event can be perceived in a number of different ways. Have each member of the dispute or incident record their own view of what happened.
  3. Take action
    After you have all the details clearly marked out, there should be some kind of action in regards to the incident. Whether this is resolving the issue on a one to one basis, or taking it formally or informally to HR, there should be a follow up on what occurred. This could be as simple as suggesting to the aggressor that they may be being overly harsh, or notifying them their actions have been observed

Every employee has a right to attend their place of work without having to worry about bullying or sexual harassment. At a minimum, there should be a workplace strategy to ensure these do not take place. And, in the case where they have occurred, victims should feel safe to come forward. A good place to start is implementing a policy regarding sexual harassment and bullying, so employees know the procedure should they be affected. Fostering a safe environment for victims and a dispute resolution pipeline, in addition to ensuring training is required, can help ensure your workplace is a better place for all.

Sexual harassment can occur anywhere. It can be in the office, at a work related event, even (and increasingly so) over the internet. Sometimes it is easily identifiable or visible to anyone observing, but other times it is invisible. As with the steps for responding to bullying as outlined above, the best thing to do when you are made aware of sexual harassment is to record everything, then take appropriate action. Whether this is talking to the harasser and telling them to stop, or encouraging the victim to come forward, there are many options that should be explored. Remember to treat each matter with care and discreetness, as the worst outcome is that the victim feels exposed or is the subject of worse treatment as the result of making a complaint.

As mentioned, it is often difficult to see bullying or sexual harassment, even when it is right in front of you. A potential problem occurs when you are in a sector that was predominantly one gender, and has since seen an influx of new employees. As such, the original or new employees may need to undergo training in order to act appropriately toward their new workmates. Another problem can arise when sexual material or comments are commonplace. If sexual images make rounds on emails, or inappropriate conversation is routine around the water cooler, it may be time to address these things. While they may seem like small things, they build a culture which allows sexual harassment to flourish.

In terms of liability for sexual harassment, it is the same as it is for any other crime. The person responsible is liable for their conduct, and as with robbery or assault, anyone found to be helping (aiding and abetting) is also responsible. Just as with an individual, if it is found that a company was able to prevent sexual harassment and chose not to, they would be found liable by way of “vicarious liability.”

No person or workplace is perfect. We may all make the occasional nasty comment while stressed, but bullying or harassment and consistent and worrying. With attentiveness and the correct training, we can all work together for a happier, healthier workplace.

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