to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond


If you eliminate potential harassment and bullying from the workplace, have we choked out all the fun? How do you respond to those who say, "Nowadays, you can't say anything!" I think we can still be fun, funny, provocative, interesting and even controversial, as long as we don't cross over the human rights line. 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.


Here's the chance to show that you can get rid of the worst and still keep the best. If discussion stays at "you can't say anything" then it's tough to address such sweeping generalities. So get down to the details.


Have 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 observations over a short time (it won't take long when your spider senses are tingling, to hear the words that you

didn't notice before). 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.


But with this process, you can't just go with a vote, allowing for "majority rules." You can't have majorities imposing their will over minorities, so that can't work. Also, even as adult as we all are, there is a huge intimidation factor for many of us and we won't want to be seen as going against the wishes of the group. So have some discussion about certain words and then talk about the impact they have on people, or what they would think the impact would be. 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 best friend is Indo-Canadian and I've seen when..." It's difficult to argue with the truth people tell, so often it allows for 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. And if you need an excuse, remind them 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.



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 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, but if it persists, you will want to decide if there is some action that needs to be taken.

This is TIP #19 of 52 WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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