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Preventing harassment in the workplace isn’t a new problem, but it’s becoming something we discuss more often and more openly. Harassment can lead to distress, mental health issues and other overwhelming feelings—and on top of all that, it’s illegal.

Many managers and human resources administrators feel that harassment is a particularly insidious and difficult action to observe; unless it’s reported, it’s difficult to catch, and victims often feel shame or guilt in reporting the incidents.

Fortunately, innovative prevention (combined with facilitated discussion) is key to creating a safer work environment, and in the scope of remote workforces, evolving management styles and even new physical office space layouts, prevention of harassment can be just as innovative as your brand’s technology and other rapid changes.

What is Harassment?

Preventing and confronting harassment involves knowing what it is and how to spot it. Legally in the United States, harassment violates the Civil Rights Act of 1954. Harassment is a series of actions or behaviors that make an individual feel threatened or unsafe. Specifically, the actions are unwanted in nature.

Harassment can include unwanted sexual advances, but not all harassment is sexual in nature. It can be personal, for whatever reason, but also based on a person’s gender, age, pregnancy status, religion, race, or sexuality.

Most notably, the victim of harassment does not have to have proof of physical or economic damage for this unwanted behavior to be considered harassment. It broadly constitutes the unwanted behavior, which can include general bullying and online interactions during and outside of business hours.

How do we identify and prevent harassment now that we understand what it is? We can harness existing resources for education, stand by clearly defined consequences and create a culture of consent.

Embrace the #MeToo Movement: A Shining Resource and Place of Solidarity

Founded in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, the #MeToo Movement called out instances of sexual harassment, especially as directed at women of color. Actress Alyssa Milano popularized #MeToo further in 2017 after she and other women of Hollywood began using this hashtag on Twitter.

In addition to bringing attention to everyday instances of sexual harassment and unwanted attention men inflict on women, the #MeToo movement created many relevant watercooler conversations at the office. Women began to bring more attention to issues of sexual harassment at work, and HR professionals started to take notice.

Instead of viewing #MeToo as a catalyst for awkward work conversations, human resource professionals can lean on it to provide context for harassment workshops and awareness training. #MeToo is a real, pervasive example of women speaking up as a reaction to incidents, and discussion about it provides a solid opportunity to prevent this behavior and empower women in the workplace.

The #MeToo Movement offers specific resources for identifying, coping with, and healing from harassment, which may be useful to human resources administrators and workshop attendees. It’s time to harness the power of a pervasive movement to create a focused discussion about harassment in the workplace.

Clearly Define Consequences for Harassment

Once you’ve provided specific examples to your workforce about harassment, it’s also vital to highlight the consequences at your particular company. For example, if the public knows more about post-rape forensic examinations and understands where and how to obtain them, it could deter unwanted behavior.

Mentioning procedures and consequences during sensitivity training can convey just how serious your company is about keeping everyone safe. Outline your disciplinary procedure and mention how and when your company will notify or cooperate with authorities.

Create a Consent-Based Culture at Your Workplace

Many of us know that consent is relevant to specific actions, such as making sexual advancements. However, creating a culture of consent can mitigate the occurrence of harassment and other violations of personal and professional boundaries. Since consent-based treatment isn’t necessarily the default in our culture, this is a workplace shift that takes time and modeling. Examples of consent-based behavior can include:

  • Asking about boundaries before declaring intent. For example, “I’m putting together an after-work gathering, but wanted to make sure you were okay with a bar or another environment with alcohol before I set the plans in stone.”
  • Permission-based actions when making a decision that potentially affects an employee’s finances or personal life: “Before I make the schedule change, I want to make sure that third-shift hours work for your lifestyle.”
  • Behavior limited by strict workplace policies, such as no dating coworkers or informing a manager if you begin to date another employee.

In training, you can use carefully moderated roleplay scenarios to encourage creative problem-solving surrounding these topics, and reinforcement of consent-based behavior.

In addition to lessening workplace conflicts, consent-based actions can create better interactions generally, especially in situations where employees do inevitably flirt or pursue relationships. If someone is used to asking about boundaries for something as mundane as workplace scheduling, they’ll be more likely to implement that behavior in other interactions.

By encouraging a consent-based culture, communicating and enforcing clear company policies regarding workplace harassment, and remaining informed about #MeToo and other social trends related to harassment, you can keep your workplace’s conversation current and innovative, hopefully preventing instances of harassment.

About the author

Noah Rue is a writer, a digital nomad, an ESL teacher, and an all around good dude, if he doesn’t say so himself.

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