to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond

Tip #18 — CONSIDERING THE COST OF HARASSMENT - 4

What are the hidden costs of harassment? Because we are conflict-averse, we would usually rather not deal with harassment. People say: It's too stressful; not worth it; don't want to handle the fallout; I just took over and inherited this problem, etc. Although I've spelled out the many ways an organization can pay for a formalized harassment complaint in previous tips, I haven't addressed the costs of avoiding harassment problems that don't end up in a formal process. Simply put, most businesses won't end up at a human rights commission, but if harassment is present, they're losing money left, right and centre.

 

One client of mine had a mid-sized company with a good work environment and friendly management. But harassment had turned up on their annual anonymous employee survey. Never mind that fewer than 10% of employees felt it was a problem; its very existence concerned management. As an employer of choice, they were surprised it was going on and wanted to correct it.

 

What does it take to be an employer of choice? I find these businesses pay their employees decently, but high salaries aren't what land them on the coveted list. They might not have gold-plated benefits, but the benefits are reasonable. As well, these businesses have a semblance of stability; they don't do layoffs at every sign of a downturn. Above all, however, employers of choice treat their employees with respect. And I mean real respect. Employers of choice deal with harassers immediately.

 

Good employers know that dragging their feet on the issue will result in higher absenteeism and staff turnover, lower morale,and wasted time. All these translate to money, albeit money difficult to measure. All represent real costs that steal from the bottom line because harassed employees will spend time:

 

— Avoiding the harasser

— Stewing over what should have been said or done

— Plotting responses for the harasser

— Talking to colleagues about the problem

— Doubting their own abilities

— Blaming themselves

 

If the person being harassed perceives the manager to be slow at responding, the amount of time spent on the list above will rise exponentially as you add in talking to colleagues about the errant supervisor as well as blaming the supervisor.

 

Time and again, when I have been called in to investigate harassment, I'm shocked by how long ago it occurred. If, for example, a racist remark was made two years earlier, the complainant can quote the time, day, exact location and people involved - sometimes even the weather and what people were wearing. But their most vivid memory of all is of the supervisor who could and should have addressed it promptly, saying nothing. When I talk to the supervisor, on the other hand, he typically can barely remember the situation, let alone any details. Or he remembers thinking it wasn't a big deal, that such things are said all the time, which is how he justified not getting involved.

 

I repeat: It was no big deal to the supervisor, but a lasting impression for the employee. And that supervisor expects employees to feel loyalty? Indeed, the employee not only lost respect for the supervisor, but for the company, because the "company" let a racist remark go unchallenged.

 

SUPERVISORY SUGGESTIONS:

1) Don't let things simmer - as we often let them. Many things aren't harassment at the beginning and will never get to being harassment if someone speaks up. Address a comment early and don't let bad feelings simmer.

 

2) Create an environment where people will come forward - likely the most important thing you can do. No one expects perfection in your workplace. If people come to you when something has gone wrong, you will be ahead of the game. Most people worry they'll be labeled whiners or worse, so make sure they know you're open to discussions.

 

3) Allow people to speak up on their own - and hopefully people will. Since we don't like to speak up for a wide variety of reasons, if you as a supervisor let employees know they will be supported if they speak up for the right reasons, you will help address some of their reluctance. The more people can handle their own problems, the better off everyone will be.

This is TIP #18 of 52 WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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