What’s the First Step to Preventing Workplace Harassment? Understanding It

April 26, 2023 | Activate Learning | 7 min read

Author and Motivational Speaker Zig Ziglar said, “The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.” Let’s take a look at the problem of harassment at work so that we may begin to address it.

Here at Skillsoft, we’ve long known that workplace harassment exists, and we are committed to taking action to prevent it. One way that we’ve been able to do this is to share real stories – like those shared by Fabricio, Rula, and Ron – as part of our compliance training to show the true impact of harassment on employees and their employers.

Here’s the Problem

A few months ago, Lloyd’s Register Foundation distributed a World Risk Poll report – Safe at Work? Global experiences of violence and harassment – which introduced new data on workers’ experiences of violence and harassment at work, including the main barriers that prevent people from talking about it.

Notably, the report shows that one in five people globally have experienced some form of violence or harassment at work, with psychological harassment being the most common form of abuse globally. Foreign-born workers are at higher risk of violence and harassment than their native-born counterparts, as are workers who are financially insecure.

See a more in-depth report on the specific impacts of workplace harassment on migrant workers, ‘Focus On: The impact of income and migration on violence and harassment at work.

Barriers preventing people from reporting this harassment include things like unclear procedures, not understanding what to do, believing that making a report would be a waste of time, and more.

I had the opportunity to discuss the findings in more detail with Dr. Sarah Cumbers, Director of Evidence and Insight at Lloyd's Register Foundation. Dr. Cumbers told me that violence and harassment at work is not “somebody else’s problem.” It will not go away if it is ignored. In fact, violence and harassment at work is a global, recurring issue. And if it happens once, it is likely to happen again and again.

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Understanding Workplace Harassment

Would you believe that 90% of webinar attendees think that workplace harassment is underreported in their own workplace?

Understanding how your employees are experiencing harassment is the first step to effectively addressing it. And from the data, we learned that workplace harassment is a global issue. It is also a recurring issue – with 61% of people who have experienced psychological harassment having experienced it between one and five times.

So, how can we use this information from the World Risk Poll to take actionable steps to create safer, more inclusive workplaces? Dr. Cumbers shared the following suggestions to help organizations address harassment at work:

  • Level the playing field. Businesses should be active in pushing for ratification of International Labour Organisation Convention 190 in the countries they operate in, levelling the regulatory playing field by ensuring the adoption of appropriate laws and policy frameworks.
  • Raise awareness. Organizations should work to raise awareness around what constitutes violence and harassment, encouraging more people to report their experiences and leading to more accurate data and greater impetus for action.
  • Protect the vulnerable. Using the World Risk Poll data, complemented by additional local data where it is available, policymakers and employers can tailor and target their interventions to protect the most vulnerable groups.
  • Intervene early. The World Risk Poll findings on the recurring nature of violence and harassment make clear the importance of intervening early – with visible and credible consequences – to stop an emerging issue, rather than dismissing it as a “one off.”
  • Establish clear procedures. Data on why people don’t report their experiences reinforces the importance of establishing clear procedures for reporting and seeking help, and communicating these proactively, especially to vulnerable groups, and in different languages where required.

The Importance of Education

Creating a comprehensive compliance training program for your organization is one of the most important ways to prevent workplace harassment. It effectively does the following:

  • Improves knowledge of regulatory frameworks and legal support.
  • Helps employees and managers recognize and report violence and harassment.
  • Improves understanding of at-risk groups to target interventions.
  • Encourages early intervention.
  • Ensures employees and managers understand and follow reporting and intervention procedures.

Obviously, workplace harassment training requirements vary by country, and in some cases, by jurisdiction within a country. In the United States, for example, employers are required by federal law to provide a workplace free from discrimination and harassment. In addition, some states and cities have their own laws regarding harassment prevention training. Yet only 20% of U.S. workers live in a state where workplace harassment training is mandatory.

In the United Kingdom, employers have a legal obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace. And while there is no specific legal requirement for harassment prevention training, the UK government's Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) recommends that employers provide such training to their staff.

The European Union has adopted legislation that prohibits discrimination and harassment in the workplace, such as the EU Equality Directives. However, there is no EU-wide requirement for harassment prevention training, and each member state has its own laws and regulations.

In Australia, employers have a legal obligation under the Fair Work Act 2009 to provide a safe and healthy work environment, which includes preventing workplace harassment. Some states and territories have also enacted their own occupational health and safety laws that require employers to take steps to prevent and address workplace harassment. However, there is no federal or state legislation that specifically mandates harassment prevention training.

Regardless of legal requirements, it is a best practice for every organization to provide its employees with regular, relevant, and empowering workplace harassment training – a crucial first step in creating a workplace culture that values diversity, promotes respect, and fosters inclusivity.

How Skillsoft Can Help

Here at Skillsoft, our goal is to empower our customers – and the world at large – to address workplace violence and harassment. In addition to covering issues around physical and sexual harassment at work, our comprehensive library of online training covers psychological safety.

Psychological safety involves the feeling of being accepted and respected – believing you can present your true self at work without fear of negative consequences to your self-image, status, or career. But it also goes beyond that to trusting that your team and your workplace is safe for interpersonal risk taking, which is crucial to being in an energized workplace of learners and problem solvers.

When there's a high level of psychological safety in your organization, there is a culture of inclusion. People feel safe to speak up, to offer ideas, and to ask questions. At the very core of psychological safety is a mindset that welcomes diversity of thought, whether it brings good news, bad news, or a puzzle.

Nurturing a mindset of psychological safety and building a skillset that supports it is key to enabling a healthy corporate culture that is free from harassment – but it all starts with acknowledging the problem.

From there, ensure that your employees understand what acceptable and unacceptable behaviors look like in the workplace. Remind them about your reporting procedures. Take immediate action on all complaints. And above all, make it clear that harassment at work is unacceptable.