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Workplace Harassment – One Year After #MeToo

workplace harassmentIt’s been just over a year that The New York Times published its groundbreaking story on Harvey Weinstein and the sexual harassment accusations against him. Since then, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have taken shape, thousands have stepped forward to share their personal experiences, and media stories of workplace harassment across all industries proliferate.

We have noticed a considerable increase in the frequency of workplace harassment related inquiries, concerns and possible allegations from our clients over the past year. Some questions are to clarify what is or isn’t harassment; some are to discuss potential risks that haven’t yet turned into employee complaints; and some are outright cries for help to deal with a harassment or bullying complaint.

The groundwork has been laid for these sensitive and, often difficult, conversations to occur in the workplace. Better yet, more employers are making a concerted effort to create safer work environments. They are providing a forum to educate and train both employees and managers on their rights and responsibilities in the workplace as it relates to harassment and bullying. More and more employees are feeling empowered to voice their concerns.

One question, however, that is consistently raised, but is difficult to answer is: We had a workplace harassment complaint and found harassment to have occurred. We’ve disciplined the offending employee but felt that firing them was too harsh a consequence. How do we get the employees to move on from here?

This can be a very difficult situation for all parties involved. Let’s take a look at some possible actions you can take to address this not uncommon scenario.

  • Make Sure Employees Know that Findings of Harassment Won’t Necessarily Result in a Termination

If a complaint is made and harassment is proven, an employer needs to take action. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, corrective action could result in termination of employment. However, it doesn’t always. In some circumstances, a disciplinary warning along with an apology to the complainant may be appropriate.

When a workplace harassment allegation is brought forward, an employer’s obligation is to make sure that any inappropriate behaviour stops and that all employees work in a respectful, safe environment, free from harassment. Typically, when a complaint is raised, we would recommend that the employer conduct an investigation into the allegations, either on their own or with the assistance of an independent 3rd party investigator.

Based on the investigation, a determination would be made whether harassment occurred, and if so, what corrective actions need to be taken. Termination of employment would be the likely outcome for the most serious of offences where the harasser can no longer be trusted to work in the workplace. More commonly, the inappropriate behaviour was unacceptable but not something that an employee would lose their job over.

When a complaint is made, it’s also important to understand what the employee expects as the appropriate remedy should harassment be proven. Employees should be aware of the process that will be followed, and what the potential outcomes could be.

  • Mediate a Conversation Between the Complainant and the Harasser

After conducting an investigation, it is important to advise both parties of the outcome of the investigation, what corrective actions you’ve taken, and what your expectations are going forward.

After this, you can consider whether there needs to be a “clear the air” meeting between the complainant and the harasser. This is a good opportunity for the harasser to apologize for their behaviour and for the employees to talk through how they will continue to work together.

It could be awkward for both parties to be in the same room together, and either or both parties may feel uncomfortable interacting with the other. You’ll need to be sensitive to the feelings and emotions of both employees and determine whether this type of mediated conversation will help make things better.

  • Separate the Employees in the Workplace

It may be that the parties will be uncomfortable working together going forward. If possible, try to minimize the employees’ interaction in the short-term, and perhaps into the long term. Put them on different shifts. Alter their break times. Have them work on different teams or different projects. Re-distribute work so that their interactions are reduced. Find ways to make sure they are not working alone together.

This could be a way to minimize the discomfort and, hopefully, if enough time passes and if there are no further incidents, their working relationship will improve.

  • Recommend the Employees Seek External Counselling

A workplace harassment situation can trigger strong emotions or reactions that the employee (either the complainant or the alleged harasser) has difficulty managing. The complainant might continue to feel hurt or offended long after others have put it behind them. Sometimes the harassing behaviours bring up prior traumas that the employee is having difficulty coping with. Or perhaps the harasser feels shame and embarrassment that makes them not able to work productively.

If you notice that any party is having difficulty handling the situation, recommend that they talk to a counsellor to help them. Refer them to your Employee and Family Assistance Program. Encourage them to speak to their family doctor to get help.

  • Prepare for the Situation Where Either or Both Parties Choose to Leave the Company

It is not uncommon for one or both parties in a workplace harassment situation to choose to leave the company. While this is usually not the preferred outcome, you need to plan that an employee might be so unhappy about the harassment situation that they feel they need to exit the workplace.

We’ve seen complainants leave because they’re not comfortable in the workplace anymore, despite a genuine apology and no further incidents occurring. We’ve seen employees who have been found guilty of harassment choose to leave because they just don’t want the stigma and want a fresh start somewhere else.

As an employer, you need to be prepared for the possibility that the parties involved may choose to resign. Ensure you have a communication plan and a contingency plan in place to deal with these potential departures.

There is no simple answer on how to handle the after effects of a workplace harassment complaint. Ideally, the harasser acknowledges their behaviour as inappropriate and offers a genuine apology and assurance that the behaviour won’t happen again. For the complainant, it would be preferable if they accept the apology and can put the situation behind them.

As an employer, your best course of action is to ensure there is a workplace harassment policy in place and that employees are trained and know what steps to take if they are being harassed. It is also imperative that employers continue to foster a respectful, harassment-free work environment where all employees feel safe.

For assistance with dealing with workplace harassment, please contact Clear HR Consulting.

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