Sexual harassment and bullying: identifying and resolving issues before they require investigation

Bullying and sexual harassment are (unfortunately) part of employee relations in most Australian workplaces; some more than others depending on the organisational culture, training of staff and existing policy. Whilst recent events have highlighted significant failings (Brittany Higgins, Rio Tinto enquiry, etc.) the way that organisations handle such complaints have cast doubt on the ability of senior managers to deal with the issue. It ends up having an impact on culture, finances, and reputation.

And according to Barbara Jaworski, founder and CEO of the Workplace Institute Canada (www.investigationstraining.com), workplace harassment and bullying can also have a detrimental impact on the mental health of workers, and that it is something that employers need to address.


Often, this is done through a workplace investigation, where a trained investigator gathers information about allegations of bullying, harassment or discrimination and ultimately makes findings on whether the employer’s harassment policy has been violated.
 
While this is a necessary process in many cases, it can also be a stressful one for the participants, and can take an emotional toll on those involved and the workplace as a whole.

Many employers are moving to a practice of trying to resolve workplace issues before they escalate to the point of requiring an investigation. This can be done through individual coaching, mediation between parties, or – if the specific workplaces issues are unclear – through a workplace assessment.
 
Assessments can be a useful tool to evaluate the climate of a workplace and gauge whether there are specific issues that are causing dissatisfaction and conflict. Is it worth the time and investment to conduct an assessment? Consider the points below:

  1. If you wait until you get complaints, it may be too late

In an ideal world every employee would feel comfortable making complaints about workplace harassment and bullying, but unfortunately this is not the case. Many workers don’t complain, due to concerns they won’t be believed, because they are worried about retaliation, or because they don’t think the complaint will result in any meaningful changes.

A 2018 poll  found that nearly half of women who experienced harassment in the workplace left their employment rather than having the matter resolved through an investigation. Failing to deal with harassment and other workplace conflicts before they escalate can lead to costly employee attrition and also can have devastating impacts on employee mental health.
 

  • The impact of workplace harassment is even greater than we thought

Speaking of employee mental health, the effects of workplace bullying on mental health are something that has received a lot of attention in the last few years, and deservedly so. One study (Hong et al., 2021) found that repeated workplace bullying can result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while another (Leach et al., 2020) found that workplace bullying can lead to an increase in suicidal ideation. Workplace harassment is not just an inconvenience or a monetary issue for employers – it is something that can have a shockingly harmful impact on the well-being of workers.
 

  • Through assessments employees feel heard and can help come up with solutions

One benefit of the assessment process is that it gives employees an opportunity to feel heard. Many employees who would not reach out to a manager or human resources with concerns will open up when an assessment process is ongoing. The fact that an employer undertakes this process sends a message that workers’ opinions are valued. In addition, participants often propose solutions during the assessment process that management would not have otherwise considered. 

As well as workplace assessments, it’s important to realise that not every complaint made requires a formal, evidence-based investigation. I wrote about this in an earlier blog that can be read here.

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