New workplace order necessary to prevent harassment

A newly hired business graduate, predicted by senior managers of a major bank to have significant potential, left the organization after one year.

He sued for harassment and bullying, saying among other things that he had a manager who set out to prove he had limited potential and frequently assigned him impossible tasks and deadlines, shouted at him and shamed him in front of co-workers for inconsequential matters.

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The graduate spoke to his manager’s boss on three separate occasions, but the issues he raised fell on deaf ears. After severe anxiety and depression set in, he felt he had no choice but to leave and sue for harassment. The case is now going through the court system.

In another situation, a senior finance manager attended a conference with his assistant in another city. On the first evening, he got cosy with her, stroking her hand over a glass of wine and talking about a promotion for her. He promised her the promotion would move along quickly, if she was “good” to him. She managed to excuse herself. The next night, he invited her to his room. She has since launched a lawsuit for sexual harassment.

A significant skills gap

Such examples demonstrate that many people in positions of power haven’t developed the filters and communication skills they need in the workplace. Often, those who find themselves the target of harassment lawsuits are to blame for their own follies.

But their managers and the organizations they work for are also at fault. No longer can they protect employees with interpersonal styles that fail to differentiate how they relate to others in their personal life from the ways they interact with their co-workers. A new workplace order is necessary.

Read: How to confront incivility in the workplace

Civility in management and communication is absolutely essential. Although employees bring their individual differences to the workplace, including their cultural backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation and age, managers and co-workers must learn to see beyond those characteristics and focus on work, achieving tasks, collaboration and motivating people to attain results.

To create a better workplace environment, managers should emphasize work-related tasks and activities by using phrases such as:

  • “Over the next few days, completing this work assignment will require more effort and focus than usual. I need your help in getting it done.”
  • “There is a convention in another city that I would like you to attend.”
  • “You have been coming in later than our starting time recently. How will you change that?”

Read: How to deal with workplace bullies

On the other hand, it’s important to stay away from interactions unrelated to work that stray into personal comments:

  • “I love the colour of your blouse.”
  • “People of your religion have too many holidays.”
  • “It looks like you go to the gym a lot.”

Other behaviours that can damage employees include: banging the desk; pointing fingers; raising voices; and shunning people.

The push to do more

The provinces, meanwhile, are taking action by introducing legislation to address harassment issues. In Ontario, Bill 132 (which amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act) requires any employer with five or more employees to train all staff members on the requirements of the legislation; provide a written program setting out how the organization will implement it; and create a safe person or team separate from the immediate manager to handle all harassment incidents. Other provinces are enacting similar or even stronger laws.

Read: Sounding Board: What employers need to know about Bill 132

Organizations need to go further, however. Managers and employees need to recognize what constitutes harassment and develop the workplace and people skills that are key to fostering civility and eliciting lasting change.

There’s no room for managers or co-workers prone to biases, prejudices or personal attacks. The goal is to create a workplace where people aren’t afraid to go to work and, more importantly, they actually like to work.

Warren Shepell is vice-president of client relations and communications at BizLife Solutions. He was the owner and president of Warren Shepell Consultants for 25 years.

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