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It’s a New Year! The Latest Thoughts on Harassment in the Workplace


From our friend Toni Ahl at EEO Advantage

t’s a new calendar year, but have things really changed in the workplace? I have written several blog articles about harassment that meets the standard for being illegal. But perhaps we should talk about disrespectful behavior instead. If the climate of the organization is civil and respectful, could harassment be eradicated?

Charges of harassment filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are not decreasing. All of the coverage in the media about high profile cases of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault could be contributing to the number of charges filed. Shining the spotlight on harassment brings awareness of what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Publicity about certain issues usually increases the receipt of charges.

Most of the sexual harassment charges I investigated while working for EEOC were not severe in nature, but rather were less egregious but occurred more often. The standard for a hostile work environment is that the conduct is either severe or pervasive. If a company steps in to stop disrespectful conduct before it rises to the level of illegal harassment, perhaps charges will begin to decrease. Asking employees to report disrespectful behavior may be the first step in eradicating illegal harassment.

Let’s talk about a few danger zones of disrespectful, yet not necessarily illegal, behavior. Using nicknames for co-workers. Many times, nicknames are based on someone’s physical attributes. These physical attributes may be related to one of the legally protected statuses. For example, calling someone “Gramps” or “Old lady.” Allowing sexual jokes or innuendos may lead to illegal harassment. Asking co-workers intrusive personal questions may cause someone to feel uncomfortable. Gossip and whispers are another danger zone and may make employees feel excluded. Although not illegal, these kinds of activities, if left unchecked, can lead to illegal harassment.

So, what can an employer do? Rather than conducting training only on illegal harassment, respect should be part of the training. Talking with employees, including all management employees, about what behaviors are acceptable to the organization is essential. Expecting employees to treat one another with dignity and respect leads to a professional work environment. Employees want to feel valued and, when treated with respect and dignity, they do feel important to the organization. All employees need to be held accountable for the climate of the organization. It’s up to all of us to step up and treat one another in a civil manner. Let’s try to become a more dignified, professional and respectful workplace in 2019. Happy New Year!

If you would like more information about respectful workplace and/or harassment training, please feel free to reach out to me at eeoadvantage@gmail.com or (502) 553-7648.

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