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Informal Harassment Policies Key to Prevention

October 1, 1998
Related Topics: Harassment, Policies and Procedures
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Many formal harassment complaints begin with simple conflict situations-layer upon layer of bad habits between people. When someone is offended, rather than addressing the issue, they let it go and it eventually leads to more offensive behavior.

Companies need to focus on the plight of the average individual. A policy is useless unless people use it, and most research would indicate that a small fraction of employees ever say or do anything about harassing behavior. It’s best to intervene and provide solutions to employee problems before they escalate into full-blown, formal complaints.

The objective is to end the harassing behavior at the lowest level possible (which is the most cost effective, as well). We need to hear about the situation before it turns into a formal complaint. Are the doors open for employees to air their concerns? Is there a confidential source for people to seek out advice about an uncomfortable situation (for instance, their boss coming on to them). Are you encouraging employees to step forward? Do you want to listen to them and help them?

When harassment happens, it’s usually not an isolated incident, but a pattern and mix of subtle and not-as-subtle behaviors. A person may rationalize that it’s not really happening or just not want to believe it’s happening. They usually seek out advice from a trusted friend or family member who may or may not give them good advice. Often employees will sit on issues because it’s too risky or embarrassing to reveal the truth to other people. How many men do you think speak up when they feel offended, pressured or violated by a woman? How many people do you think speak up when a member of the same sex violates them?

Once people are involved with HR, they often become defensive, and the resolution process can become unpleasant for everyone.

There are many pressures in our society to remain silent. Among the most common fears are being labeled a troublemaker, being "black-balled" and ignored, not being included, not sharing information, losing one’s job, being demoted, not being believed, feeling embarrassed, getting people in trouble, causing someone to lose their job, and hurting someone’s family. These fears are based on hard reality because it happens to people everyday. There are consequences to standing up for yourself, and organizations should do what they can to diminish the consequences.

Informal options act as a buffer or filter. If you hear from people as the behaviors are beginning to unfold, you can advise them on how to handle the situation before it gets out of hand. The problem with most complaint procedure systems is that they intervene too late in the process.

When people go to HR, the complaint often becomes formal. HR is obligated to take some kind of action. Even if the action is a verbal warning, a record goes into an employee’s file, which is a strong perceived form of punishment. Other questions may also arise. For example, consider the situation where the matter was a misunderstanding and everyone apologizes. Do you document this situation? What do you do with the documentation? Once people are involved with HR, they often become defensive, and the resolution process can become confrontational and unpleasant for everyone.

Keep in mind that once a complaint is formal, it’s tough to exercise the informal options. Much has been written about formal options, but these options aren’t effectively preventing the escalation of harassment complaints. The following informal options are worth considering:

The ombudsman
The ombudsman is officially designated as a neutral. They usually report directly to the CEO and are not accountable to HR or other mangers. This reporting structure is important if the ombudsman is going to gain credibility as someone who acts genuinely as a confidential resource or advisor. HR cannot act as a neutral—they are agents of the company and must act accordingly. Generally, any other agent in the company has a responsibility to end the harassing behavior, while the ombudsman’s responsibility is to be an advocate for the employee.

Usually, they are counselors who get additional training on employment issues like harassment and discrimination. They play an important role because they can coach employees about how to approach a person, and can also just be a "sounding board." Obviously, the ombudsman can help employees with a whole variety of issues. They can make referrals to EAP, to mediation and to other departments. They can encourage employees to communicate with their managers, and can explain the procedures and options. Basically, they help facilitate communication on a regular basis.

The direct approach
My guess is that 80 percent of issues can be resolved directly between the parties involved with no outside intervention. People often need a little courage, inspiration and coaching about how to communicate their feelings. We should direct a good deal of our energy in encouraging people to take responsibility for their feelings.

Employees often need advice about the direct approach. They need to decide whether it is appropriate for the situation, or whether informal attempts have failed and the person’s safety is at risk. The ideal outlet for an employee is, again, an ombudsman.

Managers are usually not trained how to handle harassment complaints, so they call HR for help. Even if the situation is a small issue, it can escalate at this point because HR is involved. A request for advice can snowball into a larger crisis, and HR would lose credibility. If an ombudsman is onboard, employees can safely get this kind of advice without a full-blown crisis.

It is advised to follow up in regular intervals to make sure the situation has been corrected.If the harassment doesn’t end, other options, including formal ones, can be implemented.

However, if an employee does involve a manager in the situation by asking for the manager’s advice, and the manager wants to handle it, the manager should encourage the direct approach. The situation should then be documented and placed in an incident file, not a permanent record.

The manager’s obligation is to follow up with the people involved and ensure that the harassing behavior has ended. It is strongly advised to follow up in regular intervals to make sure the situation has been corrected. If the harassment doesn’t end, other options, including formal ones, can be implemented.

The planned intervention
A situation may call for the manager or HR representative to sit down with all parties to review the issue. One outcome may be that the accused party apologizes and ceases his or her behavior. Again, this can be documented and placed in an incident file. Should the behavior appear again, the manager can pull out the documentation and proceed with formal options, if necessary.

The generic intervention
There are situations when an entire group is engaging in inappropriate behavior, and it may be necessary to address everyone. For example, imagine if an entire department signs a "dirty" birthday card for an employee, and one person in the office is offended. It may be better to address the entire "birthday card practice"—perhaps even discontinue it—rather than address each person individually. Other generic interventions include passing around a copy of the policy and reminding people about inappropriate behaviors, or conducting a team exercise to improve group communication.

Still, managers need to be careful not to punish the entire group when there are a few guilty parties. This practice is very prevalent and makes employees angry. A generic intervention shouldn’t be confused with avoiding uncomfortable conflicts.

Professional mediation
Professional mediation acts as a way to repair the relationship and begin healing. During mediation, an impartial expert can guide the disputing parties through a process that encourages open discussion of the problem, listening and empathy. The mediator assists the individuals in structuring a mutually agreeable solution. This option is suggested as an early-intervention vehicle to prevent issues from escalating, and it can also be used when the individual parties need assistance in rebuilding their working relationship.

Fact finding and investigation
You may need to gather more facts if the situation is complex, the accused party is in denial, there isn’t enough information to make an appropriate recommendation, or if there’s a good reason to doubt the credibility of the person bringing the issue forward. It’s typical in these situations that the issue lends itself to a more formal means of resolution. Fact-finding can be done internally, or an external, neutral investigator can be hired to conduct a formal investigation. Usually, a lawyer should be consulted at this point to assist with the process.

Workforce Extra, October 1998.
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