Prompted by cultural movements like #MeToo, there is a new awareness of the damage harassment can do. But while we might want to think workplace harassment is behind us, it’s not. Part of the problem? Some persistent myths may be interfering with your ability to create a safe and inclusive work environment.
But before we dispel these myths, let’s look at how harassment is affecting organizations. Aside from its terrible effects on employees, worker misconduct, including harassment and bullying, cost U.S. businesses $20 billion last year alone—a combination of lawsuits, lost productivity, brand damage and employee turnover.
The consequences of damaged reputations are incalculable. Research finds that a single harassment claim “can be enough to dramatically shape public perception of a company and elicit perceptions of structural unfairness.”
There are ways for organizations to avoid becoming one of these statistics—and it starts with understanding and dispelling some common myths causing misperceptions around harassment prevention.
Myth #1: We all know harassment when we see it. It’s just common sense.
All of us have come across unwelcome behavior without noticing. Why? Because something that seems fine to one person may be offensive to another.
Consider this example. People often have a fascination with what they think of as “exotic.” On the face of it, this might seem innocent enough, but there’s more to it. It could lead to comments or jokes about another person’s characteristics or appearance. Such behavior can make people feel uncomfortable or “othered”—and perpetuate a negative culture that continues to cause harm.
The solution? We need to examine our behaviors and ask questions like, “If someone were to find that statement/joke offensive, why would it be offensive? Who could it be offensive to?” We need to be attuned to how people react in the moment, paying careful attention to what we and others say.
Myth #2: Only a few individuals are the problem. Educating everyone is a waste of time.
Harassment will only end if everyone is empowered to prevent it. To start, all employees need to understand what to expect from their workplace and what is expected of them. If they experience something they don’t like, they need to be fortified with confidence to stand up for themselves.
Second, all employees should have the power to step in if they witness the mistreatment of a colleague. To do so, they must be able to correctly identify unwelcome conduct and be equipped with strategies to act effectively.
Finally, we have all been in a situation where we crossed a line and made someone uncomfortable, so vigilance in regularly reevaluating our own behavior is a must.