From an HR perspective, it can be pretty easy to distinguish what is and isn’t workplace harassment. However, your employees may not have the same level of understanding when it comes to harassment. Here are some tips to help you clearly define harassment for your employees.
Create your own definition of harassment
In order to define harassment for employees, you need to first define harassment with your leaders. The EEOC has a clear legal definition of harassment: “Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on a protected class and the behavior is either quid pro quo or pervasive or severe.” Your company should absolutely include this definition within your own. The EEOC also has a myriad of guidelines for each type of harassment and protected class that goes beyond the legal definition of harassment. Your leaders and HR team should go through these guidelines and determine which should apply to your organization.
In essence, what behavior will feel like harassment at your company? Pay attention to behaviors like toxic employees, disparaging comments, or aggressive actions; just because this behavior isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.
Once you have a clear definition of harassment at your workplace, you can share that definition with your employees via training and educational materials.
Review & update your harassment training
According to Vox, 90 percent of US employers have harassment trainings in place. So why is harassment still a pervasive issue? There are three reasons harassment training and materials aren’t working: they’re outdated, they’re not company-specific, and, frankly, they’re boring.
According to a study by Elizabeth Chika Tippett, a University of Oregon Law professor, today’s trainings still rely heavily on content from original harassment trainings of the 1980s and early 1990s.
“Changes in training content over time are like software updates, periodically adding new features without fundamentally altering the nature of the training,” said the study.
The EEOC even pointed out that companies provide harassment trainings just to avoid legal liability– they don’t invest in trainings that apply specifically to them. Consequently, trainings don’t feel genuine or relevant.
Luckily, you can stop this cycle! Review your harassment training materials and make some changes. Sharlyn Lauby of HR Bartender suggests radically changing harassment trainings to make them engaging; she recommends using pop culture examples to make trainings relatable or using training materials like, Define the Line, that do so for you. If you can make your harassment trainings relatable and engaging, your employees will not only have an easier time retaining information, but they’ll feel more comfortable discussing the concepts and reporting incidents in the future.
Match your actions with your words
When you get a harassment complaint, it’s crucial that you handle it the way you said you would in harassment trainings. If incidents aren’t handled as previously claimed, you may be confusing your employees.
Each time you receive a harassment complaint, compare it to both the legal definition of harassment and your company’s definition. If the behavior doesn’t match the legal definition of harassment, but matches your company’s definition, investigate the claim from a cultural perspective. Think about the impact of the behavior on your company and other employees. Then, talk with the harasser about why their behavior matches your company’s definition, and discuss ways to rectify the situation.
If the behavior doesn’t match your company’s definition either, be sure to tell the reporter why it doesn’t. Use this as an educational opportunity.
Have a reporting solution
According to SHRM, 75 percent of people who experience harassment in the workplace don’t report it. If you don’t know about inappropriate behavior, you can’t address it. With policies like open-door or zero tolerance, employees can still feel a lot of pressure to decide whether an incident was serious enough to officially report it. But, with a reporting process that only takes a few minutes, you’re effectively telling employees that your HR team is ready to listen and act immediately. This takes stress away from your employees, creates a more open culture, and gives you the opportunity to redefine harassment with every report.
For more information on defining and addressing harassment in the workplace, watch our webinar, “Strategies for Addressing Toxic Workforce Behavior,” with Dr. Shirley Davis, Global Workforce Expert.