to address harassment, bullying and discrimination
with Stephen Hammond
Tip #9 — HARASSMENT - FOCUS ON IMPACT, NOT INTENT
Intentions are irrelevant when deciding if harassment has occurred. My intentions might be to lighten up the workplace by telling sexual jokes, or help myself fit in with the power crowd by belittling people with the same skin colour as mine. I may even think my pictures of nudes - reproductions of classic paintings that people travel to prestigious museums to see - are beautifying our drab workplace walls. But my opinion is my own, and the opinion of my colleagues is what can create harassment at work. It is the impact, not the intention that matters.
As for employees who tell you, "Oh that's just Stephen; he doesn't mean anything by it," here's what to keep in mind. Good people can say bad things, and you're helping no one by allowing them to get away with comments or conduct that violates the basic rights of others. Again, if you focus your attention on the impact, not the intentions, you're modelling good leadership.
Does intention have any influence at all? Actually, once a finding of harassment has taken place, intention might go a long way in deciding how to resolve it. If, for example, I harass someone with the intention of inflicting harm or humiliation on that person, and do so with complete disregard for her feelings, I'm likely to be subject to disciplinary action, perhaps even severe discipline. However, if colleagues or investigators are convinced that I never intended a negative impact, perhaps I felt silly when I learned what I'd done and was sincerely apologetic; chances are I will not be disciplined. It was still harassment, but being hauled into my supervisor's office for a "discussion" may be considered action enough.
1) Correct one of the biggest misconceptions - as the idea of intention with harassment and other forms of discrimination are often misunderstood. If someone says, "I didn't mean it" or "it wasn't my intention,” be sure to explain that it doesn't matter and then discuss why the comment(s) was a problem.
2) When the intention isn't bad, then look for positive change - and it should be easy to get. If you believe the employee made a mistake or had no idea her comments were harmful, then a reasonable person will apologize (usually greatly apologize) and promise never to repeat it. They often want to make it up somehow. Deal with whatever remedy you need and then take the person at her word that it won't happen again.
3) Call people on their intention when it's obvious - because we might as well be real. We all know characters who plead innocence, when it's obvious to everyone that they made a comment to hurt. We're all adults, so call someone when you know the real effect. It helps to keep people real...and to call a person's bluff.