How to prevent harassment in the workplace

Diane Stegmeier

Stegmeier Consulting Group’s Diane Stegmeier discusses different forms of workplace harassment and what organizations can do to prevent it.

Most of us have likely witnessed workplace harassment without even knowing it. Someone makes a small, off-color joke that you may initially see as harmless, but the target of that joke doesn’t see the humor in it. In fact, the words hurt them deeply but they feel like they can’t speak up for themselves. And sometimes, no one speaks up on their behalf either.

This is the unfortunate reality for many victims of workplace harassment, and consequently, those who witness it. This generally stems from a lack of education on the issue and not knowing how to help deter these inappropriate interactions. That’s why Diane Stegmeier, a workplace change consultant with Stegmeier Consulting Group, launched Project WHEN to help combat workplace harassment.  

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What inspired you to start Project WHEN? Why do you feel there is a need for an organization like this, particularly in today’s workplace landscape?

StegmeierBack in 2018, Stegmeier Consulting Group began developing a new workplace research study and we were discussing which social issue we wanted to focus on. We began applying our research findings on adapting to physical workplace change to the need to change behaviors to prevent harassment. We found a strong correlation between the two.

We looked at this strong correlation and knew that workplace harassment needed to be addressed then and now. People were talking about it, but no one was looking at it holistically. We needed to find a solution for systemic change. Workplace harassment isn’t something that can end if it’s just one company at a time making little improvements. It has to be more of a unified movement with a large number of employers agreeing that something has to be done. 

This includes things like leadership behavior, organizational culture, accountability, rewards and consequences, and communication. If leadership is behaving badly and harassing people, others in the organization are going to think that’s okay to do the same. If certain individuals are harassing others with no consequences, others are going to repeat those infractions.

The idea for Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now) came about and we initially thought it could be a research study within Stegmeier Consulting Group. We realized that the scale of this initiative was so large that if we came up with the right solution, we could help thousands of organizations and millions of employees.

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In terms of how to spot workplace harassment, what are some signs that organizations can look out for with respect to an employee who may be the victim of it?

StegmeierIf you want to take a general look at someone who has been the victim of workplace harassment, you’ll probably see an impact on the quality of that person’s work. Maybe they’re missing deadlines or the actual work isn’t up to par with previous work. You might see absenteeism. I also think changes in personality is quite noticeable and the person may become more withdrawn, exhibit signs of depression, and become untrusting of others in the organization.

The easiest and most obvious way to spot workplace harassment is being a witness to one of these instances when they happen. Unfortunately, too many bad behaviors are simply swept under the rug. Everybody can have an impact on ending harassment in some way and part of that is observing and doing something about it. 

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Workplace harassment obviously comes in many different forms. What types of workplace harassment are the most common?

Stegmeier: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions when it comes to harassment in general. Harassment doesn’t just mean sexual harassment and it’s not just against women. It’s bullying, microaggression, inappropriate jokes, ageism, and other offensive behaviors. The biggest spotlight in the past couple of years, understandably, has been on sexual harassment.

While that’s where the biggest spotlight is shining, I would say the most interesting phenomenon is sexual harassment not being addressed correctly. By that, I mean systemic change in an organization and focusing on other forms of harassment as well. The company, perhaps unconsciously, sends the message that you’re not allowed to sexually harass someone; however, if you want to be a bully or tell racist jokes—we’ll look the other way. If companies take too narrow of an approach by just looking at sexual harassment, other forms of harassment could increase.

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Are there any trends in terms of what types of roles within organizations generally fall victim to workplace harassment?

StegmeierIn terms of who gets targeted, without trying to stereotype, I will say that there are more opportunities for harassment at companies where women and other marginalized groups are in lower-level positions and in lower pay grades.

For example, if you have a single mother who is working at a low-paying job and she’s being sexually harassed by her manager, she may feel like she has no choice but to take it because she simply cannot afford to quit. She’s in a one-income household, she has kids, she’s fighting for any wage that she can get. That power differential really targets people in lower paying positions. 

When you look at people who come from different minority cultures in a workplace, uninformed employees may also look at what they eat or their clothing and target them as a result. It opens those individuals up to bullying because those other employees aren’t educated enough on the fact that it is inappropriate. Another scenario is people with low self-esteem. They probably haven’t been trained on how to stand up for themselves and they don’t have that confidence to know that they deserve to be treated better.

entry-level job

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How do you think remote working has changed the dynamics of workplace harassment? What kind of form can it potentially take on when a team has no physical interaction?

StegmeierJust because someone works remotely, it doesn’t eliminate the opportunities for workplace harassment. When you look at cyberbullying among school kids, they’re not physically attacking each other but it can still be very damaging.

Part of harassment can also include withholding information from other people so you can advance your career and set others up for failure. When you’re not seeing people on a day-to-day basis, someone might decide to not include you when distributing a report so you look less prepared in a video conference, for example.

With remote working, there’s obviously fewer opportunities for physical harassment. That said, from a psychological standpoint, meetings that are done remotely need to be led with respect to ensure remote workers have their voices heard.

keep it quiet

What are some things organizations can do to ensure their workplace addresses harassment in an appropriate manner?

StegmeierIn general, the best piece of advice I can give is to look at workplace harassment holistically. Unwelcome workplace behaviors include bullying, ageism, off-color jokes, and so on. Look at those things together because if you tell someone they can’t harass someone in one way, it may invite them to carry out other bad behaviors. 

I think you also need proper communication. Managers need to be vigilant in addition to being both exemplary leaders and citizens. People also need to feel safe as bystanders to identify when someone they see is the victim of workplace harassment. The company needs to clearly communicate they’re against harassment. 

It’s really about the attitude organizations have by believing they can be better with a more positive culture, and identifying things they’ll do combat workplace harassment in an active way.

Find out more about how to get your company involved with Project WHEN and help end workplace harassment once and for all.

Have you or someone you know been the victim of workplace harassment? Join the conversation and leave us a comment below.

Photos: energepic, Gerd Altmann, Pixabay, PhotoMIX, Vitabello