Overcoming harassment

‘Why haven’t you got a boyfriend?’ It’s questions like this that should trigger your alarm bell.

When I first started work as a graduate clerk in a government department I was sexually harassed and was afraid (hard to believe now) of telling anyone because I thought I would never be believed!

I was in a lift with a very big man who worked in another team within my department, and had been there for much longer than me. The lift doors closed and he suddenly reached forward and cupped both his hands over my breasts. I yelled out at him angrily “John” and he stepped back and the lift doors opened and we went our separate ways.

I was in a state of shock, I never spoke to him again, and I was sure he would deny any report and I would find it hard to work in that department any more. It was a boys’ club! This may have been the 1970s, but I still hear of stories today where people are afraid to report harassment.


What is harassment?

Harassment is still a big issue in today’s workplaces. Commonly, harassment has been thought of as purely sexual, and this is certainly one of the major forms, but there is also bullying which can be classed as harassment.


Bullying may occur for a range of reasons – racial reasons and cultural differences. It can also be simply because someone is different – they are overweight, or gay, or even because they wear their hair differently, or because they are attractive, quiet, work harder and faster than the rest, or just don’t conform or join in.

How extensive is harassment in today’s workplace?

Unfortunately, harassment is very extensive in organisations today. Many companies have an officer or service set up specifically for dealing with issues like harassment.

Because we have such a diverse range of nationalities and personalities, people often have difficulty in accepting differences, and “different people” end up being the butt of many jokes and comments.


Do people realise when they are harassing?

It can be a harsh tone of voice continually used with certain people that can be a form of bullying. Often people will think they are cracking an innocent joke, however the receiver may feel very hurt. The person harassing will realise that they are getting a reaction, and would probably even recognise that they are not having a good effect on the person.


They realise that what they are doing is harassment, but they do not feel it on a deep-down level, that it is not a good thing to do. It is often very hurtful, as opposed to “this is just a bit of fun and it only feels a little bit unpleasant”.


Research has indicated that people who were bullies at school often grow up to display the same kinds of behaviour in the workplace.

The effects of harassment


Typically, the effects of harassment on people is similar to symptoms of stress. People tend to start staying away from the workplace, they may get sick, or feel tired, or start getting headaches, feel nervous, and simply do not want to go to work.


Their work may also begin to suffer, mistakes might appear and/or work is left unfinished, where usually this would not occur.


Responsibility of team leaders, managers and supervisors


A good team leader/manager/supervisor should be sensitive to harassment occurring and be able to intervene when it becomes necessary.


However, this may not be possible, as harassment can often be very subtle. The team leader or supervisor may not be aware that harassment is occurring due to when or where it occurs. It may be happening in an isolated area, for example a private office that two people share, or it may only occur when the people are working on a production line together.


It may be inappropriate questioning like “How come someone like you hasn’t got a boyfriend?” or “Do you enjoy sex?” – a question some people will tolerate and even enjoy, while others will be feeling sick and embarrassed inside. If the harassment is subtle, and the person is bottling it up and not letting the team leader know, it can be difficult.


Some people may feel reluctant to complain to a supervisor or manager about a problem with harassment. They may feel that the problem is of no interest to anyone, or that they should be tougher, or less sensitive.


A person being harassed absolutely needs to speak out about it, especially if it is affecting their work.


Harassment – big or small, one-off or repeated


Harassment usually starts in very small ways and builds up. “Harassment” by its nature is a repeated event, not usually a one-off situation. If it is one-off and it is big, then it most certainly should be dealt with.


If you are being harassed, PLEASE… talk to someone about it – a trusted colleague, or a supervisor – don’t let it pass.




See the video Overcoming Harassment




By Eve Ash, psychologist and Managing Director, Seven Dimensions, and co-producer with Peter Quarry of the Ash.Quarry production – Overcoming Harassment from the TAKE AWAY TRAINING SERIES www.7dimensions.com.au

Click here for more Eve Ash blogs




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