Not all harassment is sexual, and not all bullying is physical, and when either happens at the office it makes for a hostile workplace, one that puts the well-being of both the business and the employees at risk.
"The negative impact is multiple," says Jana Raver, an organizational expert and professor at Queen's University school of business, whose research has shown that six out of 10 employees are exposed to workplace harassment, and the perpetrators are often women.
The bullying or harassing behaviour is distracting to other employees, even those not directly affected by it, says Raver, and impairs their attitudes about their jobs.
"They start saying 'this is not the place for me, I'm going to start looking for work elsewhere.' And once you psychologically disengage from the organization then you're not terribly motivated toward helping that organization to succeed, and you've always got one step out the door. Turnover is of course a logical consequence."
Raver quotes research that suggests up to 30 per cent of women in particular are considering leaving their jobs simply because they're experiencing some degree of sexism or discrimination.
"Imagine how much more productive companies could be if they were to treat people with inclusion and respect and make sure that (workplace anti-harassment) policies are actually enforced," she adds.
Research suggests that women are more likely to be subjected to discrimination the higher they climb on the corporate ladder, "it's a way of keeping people in their place," says Raver, but the behaviour crosses all power and income levels.
A lot of people leave their jobs because of some sort of mistreatment — maybe not harassment as defined by company policies, or discrimination covered under the Human Rights Act, but something that nevertheless causes harm to both the individual and to the organization.
Preventing or changing this kind of behaviour requires a multi-faceted intervention, starting with a code of conduct — and training people on that code, defining what is respectful and disrespectful, and setting out clear procedures for what happens when the code is violated.
But while companies usually stop there, if they have any kind of formal procedure at all, that's really just a first step, she says. Employees in some cases have to be taught civility, taught what it means to be able to resolve conflicts, to deal with their differences. And that policy needs to be embedded into hiring practices as well.
"There's been a lot of work recently on putting into place a 'no-jerk rule,' for instance, where when you go to hire people you pay careful attention to the way in which they're treating people, even people that they would consider beneath them — how the applicant treats the receptionist or the secretary. If someone can't be on their best behaviour during the interview process, they're certainly not going to be on their best behaviour every day at work."
Also, job boundaries should be clarified to prevent territorial clashes.
"All of these things together can help address the problem, because it doesn't stem only from one difficult person but instead from a system oftentimes that tolerates and allows this type of behaviour within that environment."
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