Creating Excellence Through People

Workplace Harassment: An Ounce of Prevention…

Lacking vital interpersonal and other "soft" skills is a reality that impacts employee well-being and business outcomes - especially when it comes to workplace harassment.

Becoming an adjunct instructor was one of the most significant turning points in my career. The opportunity offered a platform not only to share my expertise but also to connect with students who bring their own knowledge and experiences to the table. I can definitely say that I have learned from the many students who have traveled through my human resource management and related business classes, but sometimes, that new knowledge stemmed from unfortunate circumstances.

The final project in one of my courses includes creating a training program. It’s a detailed project requiring students to research and expand on a workplace or business-related topic before creating a structured training guide and presentation. First, they must pick a topic for approval and explain why it was chosen.

Students are given a list of sample topics which they are free to select from. Harassment is on the list. The number of students who select harassment is notable, but even more so is the number of students who claim they have experienced harassment first-hand and/or witnessed it at work.

Workplace harassment is on the rise. The Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports from 2018-2021, there were 98,411 charges alleging workplace harassment, with 27,291 of these claims being sexual harassment. The EEOC also reports that employment discrimination lawsuits increased by over 50% from 2022 to 2023. The numbers are obviously increasing, whether I’m looking at official reports or self-reports from my students.

Not every claim will meet the legal threshold of harassment or discrimination. Though they are different, discrimination and harassment typically go hand in hand. Discrimination is rooted in bias, resulting in unfair treatment of an individual or group of individuals belonging to a protected class. Harassment can capitalize on discrimination by creating an environment or circumstances that cause someone with a protected personal characteristic to feel uncomfortable or threatened.

As you can see, when describing workplace harassment and discrimination, some situations are cut and dried while others are left up to perception, feelings, and even fear. I’ve investigated numerous situations in the HR office where one person’s perception of a harmless joke was not considered so harmless by the person sitting on the other side of the room who heard it. These are typically the cases that management and co-workers will turn a blind eye to. I’m also not naïve to the fact that many cases of discrimination and harassment are not reported due to fear of embarrassment, job loss, and other retaliation. Back to that EEOC reporting chart, 51.6% of charges reported in 2022 include retaliation.

Employers are often tasked with teaching appropriate workplace behavior and related etiquette. Lacking vital interpersonal and other “soft” skills is a reality that impacts employee well-being and business outcomes. To add, we typically associate this with younger employees, but these gaps are not limited to specific generations. So, what can employers do?

  • Expect more! Set expectations so that employees at all levels of an organization are accountable not only for their own behavior but also feel safe enough to take steps to report harassment and discrimination.
  • Do not dismiss a claim of harassment or discrimination. All allegations should be investigated, and all involved must be heard. Even if the claim does not meet the legal threshold of harassment or discrimination, there is still an issue to address.
  • Prevention is key. Training as a reactive measure is ineffective and may reflect poor management. Also, taking a “check the box” or “one and done” approach to harassment training will not be effective. Harassment prevention training should be offered at all levels of the organization. Employees, management, and top leaders should be educated about harassment in the context of their roles and duties.

The workplace should be a safe space. My hope is that my students who selected harassment as their project topic because of personal experience will empower themselves through increasing knowledge and a better understanding of what options they have because of completing the project.

Harassment and discrimination are both very broad and complex topics. If your organization needs harassment prevention training, complete the Consultation Request Form on our website. We welcome the opportunity to learn more and support your organization in creating excellence through people.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

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Terri Cummings

As Owner & Senior Consultant at Level Up Solutions HRD LLC, Terri Cummings is an advocate of lifelong learning who fosters bridging the connection between personal and professional development. Through strategy and proactive development, her aim is to align students, members of the workforce, and employers with continuous growth and opportunity that achieves sustainable success.

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