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Mar 19, 2018

For decades, an executive at a movie production studio engaged in predatory behaviors against women who worked for and with him. When allegations came to light it was revealed that dozens of women were his victims. Worse, the organization he worked for acted to protect him.

In spite of this, some positives have arisen. Primarily, victims of workplace abuse are coming forward. In addition to this, people are having important conversations on the subject of abuse of all types in the workplace. After all, what happened in Hollywood is reflective of what happens in many workplaces and industries. This is the perfect time for HR professionals to take on a leadership role when it comes to this topic.

Sticky scenarios

Ideally, workplace abuse simply would not exist. The next best thing would be that all cases were cut and dried and the company dealt with harassers firmly without regard to position or performance. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. Instead, things are often much more complicated. How would you approach the following scenarios:

Scenario #1: You walk towards the break room and hear three male employees talking. Two are clearly making fun of the other man’s appearance and using slurs to describe his sexual preference. When you walk into the room, everyone clams up. Two of the men exit immediately. The one remaining is red-faced and appears upset. You ask him if anything is wrong. He brushes you off, and claims everyone was just joking around.

Scenario #2: Jill is a top salesperson. She’s never received a negative employee review, and she’s been with your organization for almost 10 years. She brings in new business, and is charming enough that customers specifically ask to work with her. Last week, during an exit interview, a trainee claims he quit largely because of Jill’s behavior. He described being belittled, mocked, sabotaged, and gaslighted. No employees that have stayed with your company have ever complained about Jill, but this is the third exit interview in two years where a former employee has made a similar complaint.

Scenario #3: Everybody knows Devin is a creep. Until recently he managed to find ways to technically stay within the bounds of policy. Now, he’s committed a serious violation, one that could result in a significant lawsuit. Worse, the target of his atrocious behavior is traumatized. Here’s the complication; Devin is seen as your CEO as a go-getter. He is also the son of the CEO’s best friend who is one of the biggest customers.

Scenario #4: Caroline is currently on probation due to a variety of issues. She isn’t meeting deadlines. She’s frequently late. Any attempts you have made to redirect her are met with whining and excuse making. You want to be objective, but you really dislike her. Now she’s made an accusation against her direct supervisor.

Do you investigate? Do you fire the accused?

The answer to the first question is “always.” The answer to the second is “maybe.’” Depending on the situation, firing an employee might be the only appropriate response.  However, that isn’t the only option. Some employees may simply need to be retrained or some form of disciplinary action short of termination might be appropriate.

Ultimately, you are ethically – maybe even legally — bound to investigate and ensure that all employees are able to work under safe conditions. You must also balance your duty to protect the interests of the organizations with your obligation to protect employees who may have been victimized.

Signs of abuse

Sadly, abusers often find ways to make their behavior difficult to identify. In addition to this, abusers can be very socially astute. They may dominate conversations with their humor and funny stories. They make friends easily in many cases. On the flip side of the coin, victims of workplace abuse may be socially awkward. They may not have formed as many workplace friendships as their abuser, and as a result have little to no support system on the job. Be vigilant in identifying abuse or potential for abuse that may sneak under the radar. This includes:

  • Abusers targeting victims they know are not popular among other employees.
  • Abuse that is couched as simply joking around or even being helpful.
  • Abuse that may occur between employees that have previously been dating.
  • Forming cliques under the guise of simply being “chummy” when the goal is to exclude other employees from opportunities to socialize and establish important relationships.
  • Relationships between supervisors and employees that put some in unfair positions of favoritism or future abuse.
  • Having unfair expectations for certain employees or requiring them to perform demeaning tasks.

The truth is seeing and acknowledging workplace abuse can be a real challenge especially since much bullying comes from managers. Abusers can be deceptively likeable and abuse can take on many subtle forms.

There are certain behaviors that can serve as red flags that an employee may be abusive or have the potential to engage in abusive behavior. However, those behaviors can vary. One abuser may be socially adept, charming, and manipulative. Others may not be able to maintain any sort of veneer. Some may go back and forth depending on the situation and the people they are interacting with.

Establishing a healthy and tolerant workplace

As an HR pro, you are tasked with creating a work environment that actively discourages abusive behavior, and makes it safe for employees to report harassment and bullying. Some of these steps are obvious. Of course you should have policies against using inappropriate language, physical assault, bigotry, or abuse.

It’s also important to create a workplace that fosters inclusivity, diversity, and positive interactions. In fact, the EEOC research shows that diverse and inclusive workplaces have less harassment overall.  The HR Roundtable offered some ideas:

  • Train everyone on what bullying is and how to spot it
  • Sponsor and take part in events that support diversity and inclusion
  • Provide a safe way for workers to report bullying.

You want to send a clear message to potential abusers that your company culture does not tolerate behaviors that are abusive or belittling.

Providing support to victims

When someone has been victimized, it is important for the employer to be supportive. The first step is ensuring that employees feel safe in reporting abuse. Next, supportive organizations will have mental health resources available. This means choosing insurance plans that provide excellent mental health coverage as well as choosing an EAP that focuses on mental health wellness.  Providing annual training on harassment is important as well. Recognize employees who may be fearful about reporting abuse. Finally, support victims by taking their claims seriously.

Abuse and harassment in the workplace is a real problem. Companies can and have lost excellent employees due to this epidemic. It’s time to have serious conversations about this issue, and for HR to take on a true leadership role when it comes to this subject.

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