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Professional behaviour in the workplace

Professional behaviour in the workplace is under scrutiny. Several incidents have brought it to the fore including the sexual assault claims against film producer Harvey Weinstein and resulting social media campaign #MeToo. Closer to home we’ve seen the resignation of the former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, the sacking of First Minister Damian Green and the FT’s expose of the Presidents Club dinner, where female staff were allegedly groped and propositioned. More recently, we have learnt of allegations of sexual exploitation by international aid workers at Oxfam and other agencies.

This post looks at what you can do to challenge unprofessional behaviour where it occurs.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. Harassment can be verbal or non-verbal and may make you feel intimidated or uncomfortable. It can include:

  • Sexual comments or jokes – in person or via email
  • Inappropriate touching, such as pinching, patting or hugging
  • Unwelcome sexual advances or other forms of sexual assault
  • Leering or wolf whistling
  • Displaying images of a sexual nature, such as a Pirelli calendar

You do not need to have objected to a person’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

Sexual harassment does not just affect women

A recent BBC survey found that two in five women in the UK said they have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at work and among men, one in five (18%) said they have been harassed at work.

 Humour or banter can be misplaced

Of course, it is not just sexual harassment that can be problematic, we will all be familiar with the low-level (or more sinister) racist comments, the so-called “friendly” nicknames, ageist stereo-typing and ill-placed joshing about disability.  In some ways, it is easier to deal with the “isms” but daily comments about body-size, personal appearance and regional accents can be waring.  It can even create an environment that the recipient finds hostile, offensive or degrading.  What may be intended as humour or banter can be experienced differently and inadvertently cause offence or distress. In all cases, it is the effect on the recipient that matters and not the intention of the “perpetrator.”

Why it matters

At a human level, it matters because all employees, workers and contractors have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.  Each one of us should come to work, secure that we will not be harassed, bullied, compromised or made to feel uncomfortable as we go about our jobs.  Harassment has the potential to cause damage to mental health and self-esteem.  At an organisational level, it matters because:

  • Bullied and harassed workers are less productive and more prone to making errors
  • It is likely to increase levels of absenteeism
  • We run the risk of discrimination cases and other lawsuits (the awards for discrimination cases are unlimited)
  • The risk to reputational damage
  • It creates dysfunctional, splintered, fractious teams distracted from the “day-job”
  • It inhibits our ability to deal with misconduct generally
  • It spreads and creates ambiguity about acceptable standards
  • It escalates
  • It leads to staff turnover – especially of our most able staff
  • It makes it more difficult to attract and recruit staff

How to combat harassment

We collectively have a responsibility to prevent and stop harassment. Some steps are:

  • If you experience or observe behaviour that makes you uncomfortable, have a quiet word in the first instance. In most cases it is enough to simply ask that it stops
  • Make a clear request of what you want to happen in the future
  • Take ownership for your feelings “I don’t like it when you call Jenny ‘Grandma’”
  • Ask for help and support
  • If possible, tackle it early
  • Escalate it if necessary, to a manager or your HR team
  • Make a note of the exact incident so that you can refer to specific examples, rather than talk in general terms
  • Have a clear and accessible policy and statement that sets out expected standards and the procedure that will be followed
  • Address the incident informally where appropriate, moving to formal disciplinary or grievance procedures if necessary
  • Provide training for your employees

Our Respect at work and Diversity and inclusion courses run for 120 minutes and cover professional behaviour in the workplace.

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