The Risky Business of Ignoring Workplace Harassment


Workplace harassment is a significant risk to your organization. Please, take a moment to let that sink in.

As a workplace leader, I am sure you are incredibly busy dealing with all types of conflicting business priorities – competing expectations from incompatible mandates and legislation (safety versus accommodation versus budget) and conflicting goals and objectives (customer satisfaction versus employee work/life balance) are just two that come to mind.

With so many demands on a leader’s time, and the imperative to successfully navigate multiple priorities, it can be tempting to look the other way when you see or are told of workplace conflict, team tensions, harassment or bullying.

As tempting as that may be, it just can’t happen. I’ve seen, firsthand, how interpersonal conflict in the workplace can turn into something far more dangerous to an organization than time pressures and competing priorities.

What makes this even more challenging? Leaders expected to manage interpersonal conflict or strained team dynamics often find themselves feeling isolated, undertrained and unsupported in properly addressing complaints of disrespectful workplace behaviour and harassment. As a result, many leaders simply ignore these issues. They hope the situation will blow over. They tell themselves that one of the individuals will eventually leave. This rarely happens.

As a legal expert who specializes in workplace culture and respect, I know that when leaders fail to intervene early to support the resolution of day-to-day conflict, it eventually turns into workplace bullying or harassment. It is not a question of if this will happen, but when.

While your inaction and avoidance may be understandable, it is certainly not defensible.

Every harassment complaint begins with one negative interaction. This situation may be fixable early on but over time, if left unresolved, interpersonal tensions accumulate, disagreements fester and working relationships become irreparably damaged. Often, so does the broader work environment.

A workplace leader’s continued failure to resolve workplace conflict creates three significant risks for the organization.

Risk of Litigation due to Workplace Conflict

Leaders have a proactive and ongoing duty to be aware of workplace dynamics affecting their teams. Once they become aware of potential conflicts, harassment or bullying, they have an immediate duty to inquire – fairly and objectively – into these potential concerns. Finally, they have a duty to act but only after they have completed an objective review into the situation. Their actions are only defensible if based on the findings of a properly conducted review.

Individual leaders, as well as the employer generally, will be exposed to liability if, through conscious or inadvertent avoidance, busy schedules or otherwise, they remain unaware of or fail to inquire into dysfunctional and disrespectful behaviour that they knew or should have known was happening at their workplace.

The litigation can be varied and far-reaching. It may include civil litigation (claims in contract, negligence, privacy violations and otherwise), criminal litigation (accusations related to injury caused by negligent safety practices, assault and harassment), labour arbitration (violations of a collective agreement) and complaints before various tribunals (employment/disability insurance, worker safety and human rights tribunals).

In many of these situations, the leaders are directly named as parties to the litigation based upon their alleged failure to act despite knowledge of potential wrongdoing in their workplace – that is, for their alleged acts of omission.

Risk of Employee Departure due to Workplace Conflict

Competent and respectful employees leave teams, departments and organizations when they see or experience workplace disrespect – especially so when they perceive their leaders as not taking workplace conflict and harassment seriously.

Some employees leave because they can, while others leave because they must – that is, because of mental or physical illness associated with their dysfunctional work environments. Those who stay become disengaged and demoralized, which results in huge hits to organizational productivity and innovation.

Risk of Damaged Reputation due to Workplace Conflict

Workplace harassment litigation often attracts the attention of media outlets, including newspapers, social media and otherwise. As a result, the damage to the organization extends well beyond the costs of litigation or the monetary damages awarded to the wronged employee.

Organizations are often far more affected by high-profile stories related to reported cases that are then distributed throughout the community, damaging their reputation with customers and clients and in turn, helping their competitors advance.

Over time, teams, departments and organizations that choose to ignore workplace harassment develop reputations for being dysfunctional, toxic, broken or worse. Individuals who leave these workplaces talk – and others eagerly listen. They learn to stay away if they know what’s best for them. Internal transfers drop and succession planning becomes impossible. This significantly impacts successful recruitment and retention.

Five Strategies to Manage Your Risk – Stop Workplace Conflict from becoming Workplace Harassment

The risks and costs of workplace conflict multiply over time. Regardless of what’s happened in the past, your most effective risk management strategy is to act now. Here are some quick tips to do just that.

1. Be Honest with Yourself: Are you aware of issues between individuals on your team that need attention? If so, sit down and support them through a facilitated conversation. Make the resolution of conflict mandatory on your team. Getting along in a respectful manner should not be a “choice” – it should be an expectation.

2. Conduct a Review: Are you aware of one or more individuals who appear to be causing serious issues for you, the organization, their team members or others? If so, conduct an objective and fair review into the situation and then create and implement a tangible action plan to address the concerns.

3. Get Help: If you question your ability to facilitate conversations or conduct investigations, as a short-term solution, seek support from an internal or external consultant in human resources who has expertise in this area. However, make it a longer-term goal for you – as the leader – to learn these skills yourself. The ability to mediate conflict and conduct fair and objective reviews into team dynamics is critical to building high-performing, respectful and productive teams.

4. Be Honest with Yourself, Again: If you are unaware of issues between individuals or on your team generally, is it because they don’t exist or because you simply might be unaware of them? Could you have been so busy and distracted that you have lost the pulse on your team dynamics? If so, don’t panic. Start conducting confidential 1:1 interviews with your team to get a sense of how everyone is doing. If you prefer, arrange to have a third party conduct an environmental scan of your team. This process provides a safe place for employees to share their concerns about workplace dynamics and allows them an opportunity to improve the current environment.

5. Hire with Care: If you are building your leadership team, ensure that emotional intelligence, conflict management, professionalism, respectful communication and demonstrable empathy are qualitative competencies in your competitions. Questions related to these competencies must also be your focus during your comprehensive reference checks. Too many organizations hire for metrics and management over genuine leadership, respect, transparency and compassion. There is no question that workplace respect starts at the top and leadership begins at the application process.

The risks of workplace harassment are significant. The costs are even higher. But these risks and costs are avoidable. Hire the right leaders. Train and support those leaders to become active and engaged in identifying and resolving workplace conflict as soon as it becomes apparent.

Team conflict does not have to be scary. But workplace harassment is a nightmare. Act now.

Labour, employment and human-rights lawyer, mediator, arbitrator, author, speaker and organizational consultant, Marli has transformed her in-depth knowledge of the law and workplace dynamics into a revolutionary approach that helps organizations create healthy and productive environments. To learn more, and explore a world of low-cost resources for you and your organization, please visit our Resources section.


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