Health and Safety

To prevent workplace violence and harassment, be proactive

August 17, 2022

The qualities of an ideal workplace, from company culture to management style, look different for everyone. But there’s one characteristic that every worker wants and deserves from their workplace: a safe and respectful environment free from violence and harassment.

The topic of workplace violence and harassment isn’t easy to discuss, but it’s one we can’t ignore. According to recent research, 71 percent of workers have experienced at least one form of harassment, violence, or sexual harassment in their workplace.

Despite the prevalence of workplace violence and harassment, they often go unnoticed or unreported. This can mean that some employers may think violence and harassment don’t exist at their workplace, so measures get put on the back burner until an incident is reported, leaving managers scrambling to investigate. Having a plan in place to respond to incidents is important, but it’s also essential to take a proactive approach and consider how you can prevent workplace violence and harassment from happening in the first place.

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 words, gestures, or actions that have a negative context, and deliberately harm a person’s dignity or their physical or psychological well-being. Generally, if the person knows or should know that the behaviour is unwelcome, that behaviour is considered harassment.

Workplace violence and harassment can take on many forms.

When we talk about violence and harassment, physical assault often comes to mind first. But because workplace violence and harassment encompass a range of behaviours and actions, employers can sometimes miss the signs.

Some specific types of workplace violence and harassment include bullying, domestic violence, online harassment (including cyberbullying), and sexual harassment, among others.

  • Bullying involves making disparaging comments or participating in behaviours that could mentally harm or isolate someone, such as spreading rumours, intimidation, or persistent criticism, typically to gain some level of power over that person.
  • 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. Because domestic violence can follow employees into the workplace, employers should be aware of the signs and reduce the risks for employees.
  • Online harassment includes any form of cyberbullying, where 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 which 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.

Everyone is at risk, but workplace violence and harassment affect some more than others.

Workplace violence and harassment can happen any time at any organization, from large corporations to small businesses. Any employee can be at risk because aggressors can range from fellow employees to strangers, but there are certain people that are at higher risk.

People living with a disability, people who are gender-diverse, and Indigenous people experience higher rates of workplace harassment and violence. Other factors that increase risks include working with the public, handling money or prescription drugs, serving alcohol, and working alone.

As an employer, it’s important to recognize how violence and harassment disproportionately affect members of equity-deserving groups and to work to eliminate systemic contributing factors as well as external threats.

Being reactive isn’t enough.

Take a minute to think about how you address violence and harassment at your workplace and how you keep your employees safe. Are you thinking about reactive measures right now? Or proactive?

If you take a reactive approach, you’re waiting for something to happen before you investigate an incident and respond. You might have the legally required policies, training, and risk assessments in place, but don’t think much about it other than that. Ultimately, this mindset puts your employees at risk.

If you take a proactive approach, you take actions every day to create a safe workplace and go beyond the required policies, risk assessments, and training . A proactive workplace is one where diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are embedded in its culture and employees are encouraged and feel comfortable to report incidents.

Employers are responsible for the safety of their employees while in the workplace. You can help significantly reduce the risk of incidents by taking proactive measures.

How to proactively address workplace violence and harassment

Proactively addressing workplace violence and harassment means managing the precursors to these issues before they become problems. What does this look like in action?

  • Acknowledge the potential for violence and harassment to exist in your workplace and regularly assess hazards and risks.
  • Set clear expectations of what is and is not appropriate and communicate frequently with staff to gather feedback for areas of improvement.
  • Implement good reporting mechanisms and encourage employees to report incidents.
  • Have supportive leaders that exemplify and demonstrate safety, respect, and trust

advice from our HR advisors on how to create a safe workplace for all your employee

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.