Difficult conversations: Do we have a problem with harassment?

After all the public allegations of sexual harassment in 2017, Vicky Roberts says businesses need to change. 

During 2017 the world was shaken by an epidemic of sexual harassment allegations. A survey conducted by the BBC found that half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed in the workplace.

These findings followed in the wake of the allegations made by, and against, a number of high profile and powerful people in glamorous industries. The torrent of revelations that followed has prompted many employers in similar, or satellite industries to sit up and ask questions.

…it can be tempting to think ‘that sort of thing’ won’t be happening outside the limelight of the celebrity world – but won’t it?

As learning and development professionals begin to design this year’s training programmes, will sexual harassment be on the list of behaviours to tackle in all organisations? The press has highlighted behaviour rooted in the exercise of power; and it can be tempting to think ‘that sort of thing’ won’t be happening outside the limelight of the celebrity world – but won’t it?

Organisations need to think once again about the existence of all types behaviours that can cause offence. This can range from deliberate acts designed to humiliate; to the misuse of power or authority; to an intention to do the opposite of offend – to amuse. ‘Banter’ might seem like a harmless buzzword – but this phrase can mask equally as serious and as damaging consequences for the recipient.

The concept that ‘harassment can happen unintentionally’ is nothing new to learning and development departments, but use it alongside learnings from the #MeToo campaign; and effective training programmes designed to eradicate all forms of harassment at work will emerge. Here’s a four-point plan of the things to cover in your design:

  • First, address all points on the spectrum from deliberate to unintentional behaviour. Recognise that a misuse of power, authority or a sense of superiority might not be a deliberate decision on the part of the author. Consider the behaviours that can arise in a male- or female-dominated team, for example.
  • Second, give your employees techniques to understand the nature of humour and the ways in which it can become misplaced in a work context. Highlight the fact that what is acceptable to one person may not be to another, and what is acceptable to the same person one week, can change the next.
  • Third, develop employees in their ability to say – ‘that’s not okay’. Through the right training approach employers can support employees who have been affected by harassment, with techniques to voice their discomfort confidently, constructively and ‘in the moment’.
  • Fourth and finally, train employees to receive and accept feedback that ‘that’s not okay’.  Effective training can enable the author of the inadvertent behaviour to apologise, and recognise that their colleague is entitled to view the attempt at humour as ill-judged. 

From this arises genuine empowerment for employees to ‘call out’ harassment in all points on the spectrum. Knowing that the inadvertent will be dealt with effectively by their feedback will give team members confidence that they can, and should, speak out when issues arise – not bury them until one person is brave enough to begin a trend.

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When organisations become aware that they have a problem with harassment, sexual or another form, it is a significant challenge for everyone involved. The topic is undoubtedly emotional and complex. 

Acting proactively by conducting effective training for all employees as a matter of routine, will not only help organisations to prevent issues remaining unresolved; but support them in taking a huge step towards achieving a positive and inclusive workplace culture that supports business growth.


About the author

Vicky Roberts is head of VLearning at Vista Employer Services.


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