to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond


I hear more than ever, that people think you can’t say anything at work, for fear of being disciplined. Or some people feel that everyone is so “sensitive” these days that it’s best to stick to work issues and stay away from anything personal.


I think there’s some truth to this. There are so many words or issues that have negatively affected some Canadians, that they’re not willing to put up with words, comments or jokes they consider to be inappropriate. Problem is, not everyone has been educated to know when their words, comments or jokes are in fact inappropriate. That won’t let everyone off the hook, but it reminds me that everything is about “communication.” When we talk things out, there’s much better understanding.


Harassment prevention isn't about sterilizing the workplace. It's about eliminating words or actions that are disrespectful. Don't worry; there are plenty of words, jokes and actions left over to smile and laugh about.


I suggest having a short discussion at work about language. You can start by getting people to discuss and write down words they like, don't like or are uncertain about. Or you can come up with some of them from your recent observations. You might start noticing how men refer to women (and even how women refer to men). Or you might notice certain words that are, or might be offensive. When you present these words to your group, at first, don't be definitive about them - in other words, don't put them into your categories of "good," "bad" or otherwise. Start out by establishing the rules at the beginning that everyone gets to speak their minds and then you'll get honest responses.


However, with this process you can't just go with a vote, allowing for "majority rules" since that allows majorities to impose their will over minorities. As well, the intimidation factor can be huge, where even adults don’t want to “rock the boat,” by going against the wishes of the group. So have some discussion about certain words and then talk about the impact they may have on some people. Most people, when given the chance to be thoughtful, will in fact be thoughtful. Hence, many times, someone will say something like "my daughter told me...." or "my friend is Indo-Canadian and I've heard..." It's difficult to argue with the truth people tell, so often it allows people to change their behaviour.


At the end of the day, you may have to put limits on certain words or terminologies.  Even if people don't have any problem with a word that you know is, or could be a problem, you'll have to let them know it's not acceptable. In other words, there are times your group can come to an understanding, and there are other times the boss has to make a decision people may not be happy with. That's true of other workplace decisions anyway, so it's not bizarre. The buck stops with you, and if you need an excuse, remind employees that the employer will ultimately be liable for the actions of its employees and hence the employer can't take the risk. It's a form of risk management and you are a supervisor/manager.



1) Be upfront - because they're going to figure it out within minutes. You can start with something like, "I went to a presentation about workplace harassment and I learned a few things I want to discuss with you." Or, "I've been thinking about some of the language in our workplace and I want to talk about it."


2) Set guidelines before the discussion starts - and they don't have to be extensive.  You can say you want an open and honest, yet respectful conversation. Everyone gets to be heard and truly listened to. People don't have to speak up if they don't want to, but they are encouraged to say what they want. Make it quick and then remind everyone of these guidelines when the discussion gets going.


3) Don't get formal. - Once the conversation is over, don't have people sign a piece of paper pledging their allegiance to the new congeniality. However, I'd suggest you ask for a show of hands or just nods that people will agree to abide by the outcomes you've discussed. It's about moral persuasion. I wouldn't discipline someone who breaches the agreement right away, but if it persists, you will want to decide if there is some action that needs to be taken.

This is TIP #10 of 26 BI-WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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