Successful businesses rely on the talents of a diverse workforce with various backgrounds and skill sets. But sometimes conflict and power struggles filter into the workplace. While management should intervene when necessary, most squabbles between workers aren’t cause for alarm. However, being aware of the line between healthy dissension and workplace harassment is part of your responsibility as the owner, and you should have a defined protocol to deal with behaviour that crosses the line.
What Is Workplace Harassment?
The Government of Canada defines harassment in the workplace as behaviour directed by one individual toward another where the individual knows or should reasonably know the behaviour is offensive or capable of causing harm. Any sexually oriented comment, physical contact, or behaviour that offends or embarrasses another employee is classified as sexual harassment. Sharing vulgar sexist jokes, ignoring boundaries of personal space, and making passes are common examples of sexual harassment that make employees uncomfortable. The employee being harassed often experiences negative feelings, such as embarrassment, shame, or anger.
In most cases, workplace harassment requires a pattern of behaviour, not just a one-off incident. In situations where the offence is severe, however, such as groping or violent behaviour, a single occurrence is enough to classify the behaviour as workplace harassment and take appropriate action.
How to Investigate Harassment Complaints
The first step in detecting and rooting out workplace harassment is having an open-door policy where employees feel comfortable approaching you with concerns. This isn’t to say that every allegation of harassment has merit, but workers need to know that you take their grievances seriously and investigate all accusations. This environment gives employees the confidence to come forward if they feel they’re harassed or if they see someone else being harassed.
Next, establish a procedure for investigating allegations and determining if anything inappropriate has taken place. Interviewing all parties directly involved and any witnesses to the alleged incident helps you gather information to make a decision. Consider if there’s a history of inappropriate behavior existing between the involved parties.
If you discover evidence of inappropriate behaviour, determine whether it constitutes actual harassment. For example, a comment from a male to female employee such as, “That short skirt looks good on you,” is inappropriate and offensive. However, if it’s a one-time occurrence and the male employee has no history of making inappropriate remarks, he might deserve the benefit of the doubt. His comment may simply be a poor attempt at a compliment with no harm intended. However, if the same male employee regularly makes suggestive remarks to females in the office, this establishes a pattern of workplace harassment, which means you need to deal with the employee appropriately.
Dealing With Workplace Harassment
The best policy for dealing with harassment is zero tolerance. Handling harassment swiftly with appropriate consequences, even in isolated cases, contributes to a positive workplace culture that helps your employees feel valued and safe. The Canada Labour Code dictates that employees are entitled to work in an environment free from sexual harassment. It’s your responsibility as the employer to provide that safe environment. Having policies in place that define sexual harassment, advise how to file complaints, and specify penalties for offenders creates a proactive, preventative atmosphere in your business.
If a supervisor, employee, or business partner is sexually harassing one of your staff members, you must take measures to stop it. It’s in your best interest to sever ties with employees who harass others in the workplace. No matter the employee’s talents or what they bring to the table, it’s never enough to overcome a pattern of harassment or bullying toward other employees. In the long run, nothing is more valuable to the health of your business than a cohesive workforce.
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