Understanding the meaning of Harassment
Recent allegations which have hit the headlines regarding sexual harassment – in the film industry, politics, fashion and the art world – has prompted us to consider what constitutes this behaviour across our own workplaces.
The legal definition often surprises many because in everyday language the word harassment is often used in the same way as bullying, advises Jane Rawlins, HR advisor to Crown Workforce Management.
Harassment in law, is about behaviour and is related to other characteristics which are also illegal to discriminate against including age, gender, race and religion.
The law defines harassment as unwanted conduct which:
- has the purpose of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person; or
- is reasonably considered by that person to have the effect of violating his/her dignity or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him/her, even if this effect was not intended by the person responsible for the conduct.
Says Jane, founder and consultant at Camino HR: “Harassment is unwanted and leads to people feeling that their dignity has been violated or it makes them feel intimidated or humiliated. Harassment in the workplace is illegal and employees don’t have to leave their job to make a claim to an employment tribunal, nor do they need two years’ service before they can make a claim as is the case for unfair dismissal. It really is, therefore, something that employers need to take very seriously.”
Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct which is of a sexual nature. This can be verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, forms of sexual assault, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings or sending emails with material of a sexual nature.
Everybody at work has the right to say that behaviour of a sexual nature is unwanted, though of course different people have different views as to what is unwanted – some behaviours are more obviously likely to be considered as harassment than others and what is a compliment to one person can be unwanted by another.
Adds Jane: “People are often afraid to speak out about the way they feel, maybe because they think they will be ridiculed, not taken seriously, or they worried that they will be victimised for raising a concern. And whilst it is illegal to victimise people for making a complaint of harassment – there is even more protection for people who have been subjected to sexual harassment – it doesn’t make it any easier.”
With the spotlight being put on this subject, organisations would do well to re-examine their Dignity at Work or Bullying and Harassment policies and make sure that they have carried out sufficient training, recommends Jane:
“All managers and supervisors need to be aware of the law and should have the confidence to ensure that policies are understood and effective.
Camino’s half day ‘Dignity at Work’ workshops for HR staff, managers and supervisors can be tailored to refer to your organisations’ internal policies and procedures and cover bullying, harassment and discrimination at work.