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How to Address Workplace Violence and Harassment

How to Address Workplace Violence and Harassment

  • Violence and harassment in the workplace
  • Workplace violence and harassment can quickly poison any workplace.
  • A proactive approach means assessing the workplace for hazards like violence and harassment before they occur and working to remove them.
  • Sound policies, training, regular communication, and a positive culture are all tools organizations can use to reduce the hazards associated with workplace violence and harassment.

How to proactively address workplace violence and harassment

Almost all working Canadians are familiar with the hazards of workplace violence and harassment in one form or another. According to a study from Western University (UWO), 71% of survey respondents experienced at least one form of harassment, violence, or sexual harassment between 2019 and 2021, with 65% reporting at least one instance of those experiences happened at work. Even if it is not being reported, there is a good chance some form of workplace violence or harassment has taken place in your workplace recently. This highlights why workplace violence and harassment training is a vital part of any successful organization.

That same UWO study showed that people living with a disability and people who are gender-diverse experience higher rates of workplace harassment and violence than people who are not members of those groups. Factors that increase the risk of harassment and violence also include working with the public, handling money or prescription drugs, serving alcohol, and working remotely or in isolation. Employers must be aware of the disproportionately negative effects violence and harassment have on members of historically marginalized groups and work to eliminate systemic contributing factors as well as external threats.

To proactively address workplace violence and harassment means to manage the precursors to these issues before they become problems in the workplace. This means acknowledging the potential for them to exist in your workplace, thoughtfully assessing the real and potential hazards and risks, taking steps to prepare for or eliminate risks, reminding staff of these things, and having leaders who exemplify and demonstrate safety, respect, and trust. We’ve helped numerous HR professionals across Canada improve and deliver ongoing workplace violence and harassment training initiatives at their organizations. You can book a free demo with one of our HR experts at a time that fits your schedule and see the training course catalogue and policy templates we offer.

What are workplace violence and harassment?

The precise definitions of workplace violence and harassment vary by jurisdiction, so check the applicable legislation for your workplace. Generally, workplace violence is the use of physical force by or against a worker that either causes or could cause injury. It includes any attempt at violence and threats of violence. Workplace harassment can include more than just words. It also includes gestures or actions that have a negative context, and deliberately harm a person’s dignity or their physical or psychological wellbeing. Generally, if the person knows or should know that the behaviour is unwelcome, that behaviour is considered harassment.

Forms of workplace violence and harassment

With workplace violence and harassment, physical assault often comes to mind first. However, because workplace violence and harassment encompass a range of behaviours and actions, employers occasionally miss the signs.

Specific types of workplace violence and harassment include (but are not limited to) bullying, domestic violence, online harassment, cyberbullying, and sexual harassment.

  • Bullying involves making disparaging comments or participating in behaviours that could mentally harm or isolate someone, such as spreading rumours, engaging in intimidation tactics, or persistent criticism.
  • Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviour used by a person to gain power and control over someone they are in an intimate relationship with, or previously were in a relationship with. Domestic violence can follow employees into the workplace, so employers should be aware of the signs and reduce the risks for employees wherever possible.
  • Online harassment includes any time a person uses the Internet to harass or threaten others. With more people continuing to work from home, online harassment has become a pressing safety concern for remote workers.
  • Sexual harassment is one of the most blatant and harmful types of harassment. It includes comments or actions based on sex or gender that are unwelcome, humiliating, or annoying, and that aggressors should reasonably know are unwelcome. A 2020 Statistics Canada report that looked at inappropriate workplace sexual behaviours in the provinces found that 25% of women and 17% of men experienced sexual misconduct in the workplace in the previous year.

All types of violence and harassment interfere with the employee’s ability to do their job, threaten their wellbeing, and create a toxic work environment.

How often should workplace violence and harassment policies be reviewed?

Workplace violence and harassment risk assessments should be the foundation of every violence and harassment prevention program. The program should be reviewed as often as necessary, or when there is a change in the workplace that affects the program, such as when an incident occurs. Some jurisdictions also require that it be reviewed at least annually. Thoroughly assess your workplace for risks associated with violence and harassment using a standardized Workplace Violence and Harassment Risk Assessment Form; this is one of the best ways to determine how these issues can affect employees so that you can begin implementing controls to eliminate or lessen hazards. Surveying current employees using a Violence and Harassment Awareness Survey to check how they feel about current risks and controls is a great place to start. Getting feedback from those affected can shed light on aspects of the workplace that may not be easily visible to management. When completing risk assessments, it is important to refer to documentation on any previous incidents of workplace violence and harassment, as well as how other companies like yours have managed risks. Reviewing how real situations played out in the workplace will help you understand the dynamics and factors that contribute to the events so you can work to limit them.

With the rise of remote work, cyberbullying and online harassment have become more prevalent. This change has allowed exclusion as a harassment tactic to become more common. Aggressors can manipulate the communication system to purposefully exclude individuals, then either ridicule them for not participating or create a power imbalance and leverage information they missed against them. Digital channels also make sharing harassing content more accessible because information can be shared directly and with many individuals at once. Be mindful of how employees are using digital resources when assessing risks associated with cyberbullying.

To remain proactive and continue to address issues, complete violence and harassment risk assessments and survey employees regularly. Because workplace violence and harassment are often rooted in interpersonal relationships, situations will change due to constant fluctuations in employee moods, perceptions, and behaviours. Staying on top of changing circumstances is crucial, and the best way to do that is through regular, repeated risk assessments.

Workplace violence and harassment training

Everyone at your organization must understand exactly what constitutes workplace violence and harassment. Use Workplace Violence and Harassment Training, have discussions, survey employees, and post bulletins to communicate important information in as many ways as possible to keep the subject matter fresh in employee’s minds. Repeating this information across several channels helps ensure all employees have the same understanding of what workplace violence and harassment are. This is important in terms of setting expectations of what is and what is not appropriate.

It is also important that everyone knows your organization’s HR policies. Implement Workplace Violence and Harassment training and policies and ensure employees understand the expectations it outlines, and regularly remind everyone where policies can be found for review. As an employer, it is also important to explain the reasons for the policies. For high-risk jobs like those who handle money or serve alcohol, explain that these jobs are at higher risk of violence and harassment and why, and confirm with employees that they understand why your business has such policies and why certain actions will be taken. Thorough understanding goes a long way towards giving employees the confidence to face these issues, help each other, and follow established structures to help eliminate these risks. This can be completed in one-on-one discussions, during staff meetings, and during training sessions.

How to report violence and harassment in the workplace

Workplace violence and harassment damage the health and wellbeing of victims, as well as the workplace environment. If meaningful reporting systems do not exist and victims feel like they need to face these events alone, long-term side effects can include negative mental health outcomes, loss of social relationships, and turning to substance abuse. Victims feel unwanted and that attending work is unbearable. Trauma related to workplace violence and harassment can also lead to negative physical health effects.

Similarly, if incidents are not reported to management, perpetrators can start to feel like their behaviour is acceptable. Workplaces can quickly become toxic, which can lead to decreased morale and high turnover, and directly affect the company’s bottom line. Just a small number of unreported incidents can give an employer a bad reputation with their employees for not addressing the situation, even if they were never made aware. Employers have a responsibility to keep their employees safe, and that includes protecting them from workplace violence and harassment.

You must implement mechanisms for reporting workplace violence and harassment that work. Not only is it required by legislation in most jurisdictions, workers need a well-designed channel to specifically address these sensitive situations. If you have very few reports and don’t know whether your system works, consider adding an anonymous question in a survey for how workers would like to report. Regularly remind all employees of the reporting structure, use formal Harassment Complaint Forms, and frame reporting in a positive light, reassuring that the company is there to help. HRdownloads empowers HR professionals to create branded policies from our template library, or our HR experts can construct a tailored policy manual for organizations of any size. To speak with one of our HR experts at a time that fits your schedule, book a free, no-commitment demo of our content to see more.

Tips for promoting safety, respect, and trust in the workplace

Management needs to act as supportive leaders. They need to be the ones to lead by example for preventing workplace violence and harassment by embodying a safety-first mentality, using a Mutual Respect Policy to support a respectful company culture, and cementing trustworthiness among their employees.

Due to its transactional nature, there will always be a degree of power imbalance inherent to the manager–worker relationship that can make some workers wary of speaking up for fear of it being used against them, despite reprisal being against the law. Power imbalances can be rooted in the management–worker relationship, or in a misplaced perception of power based on characteristics like sex, race, physical size, gender expression, or gender identity. All these dynamics can be manipulated to cause harm by way of workplace violence and harassment. If employees do not believe management will do the right thing when issues are brought to them, or if they are intimidated by a manager’s behaviour, employees might avoid reporting problems.

Employers must work proactively to make their workplace inhospitable to violence and harassment and to denounce all violent or harassing acts before they become commonplace. Having a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) in the Workplace Policy is another step towards cementing positive culture across the workplace. It is crucial that company culture, policies, and management behaviour all reflect and support positive ideals like, equity, respect, safety, and trust to help employees believe power imbalances will not be leveraged against them and to ensure toxic behaviours are denounced from the top to the bottom of the organization.

Employees need to feel empowered to stand up against workplace violence and harassment, and that feeling of empowerment is built on strong policies and procedures, which are improved by strong support from management and consistent implementation. When employees see management stepping up, having hard conversations, and leading by example, that behaviour will in time become the norm and a standard all employees strive to meet. It only takes one person standing up against violence and harassment to begin making a difference, and when you have the power of your entire staff working together and supporting each other, it becomes far less likely the workplace becomes poisoned by violence and harassment.

Preventing workplace harassment and violence

Addressing workplace violence and harassment can be intimidating. If employers only react to incidents, they have already failed to protect employees from the associated risks and can only offer protection to future employees, and even that is only if they accurately address the issue. Taking a proactive approach to addressing workplace violence and harassment, even if you do not believe there are currently any related issues in the workplace, is the best way to eliminate the associated risks. This is done through regular risk assessments, constant communication, implementing a sound reporting structure, and working to develop a positive workplace culture based on safety, respect, and trust. Taking the steps to proactively address these issues is well worth the effort to help ensure your employees are safe.

If the violence and harassment prevention policies at your organization could use a refresh, book a free demo and see how our training courses and content templates can help. If your organization would benefit more from live HR support, schedule a demo with one of our HR experts and learn more about our Live HR Advice service, after which you’ll receive a free, no-commitment quote for HR support tailored to your organization’s goals.