The Aftermath of Workplace Harassment
– GAYLE WIEBE OUDEH
Your company has a clearly articulated, thoroughly developed harassment policy. You know how to handle complaints of harassment, how to investigate the allegations, how to determine if harassment occurred or not. But what do you do after that? Whether the investigation determined that harassment occurred or it determined that it did not occur, what you do when the investigation is complete can literally make or break your company.
Strong words, it’s true, but consider the following:
Investigations can be lengthy – anywhere from a few months to a few years. Regardless of the findings of the investigation, many individuals (the accuser, the accused, witnesses, and co-workers) have been involved or impacted by a disruptive process for a considerable length of time.
An investigation impacts a lot of people, not just the accuser and accused. Witnesses are questioned about what they have seen or what they’ve known about a clearly difficult situation. This is frequently stressful for witnesses and may impact their relationships with co-workers.
Even if they aren’t witnesses, co-workers can be impacted by an investigation. Frequently, after an accusation has been made, some action is taken to separate the accuser and the accused. Most often the accused is taken out of the work environment while the investigation proceeds. For the sake of confidentiality, co-workers will have little or no information as to why such an action has been taken. This frequently leads to gossip and rumors. And, as co-workers speculate, it is not unusual for many to take sides in the situation even when they don’t know the full story.
Then there is the individual accused of harassment. There are some who would say an individual guilty of harassment is not worth consideration. However, one must keep in mind that not all who are accused of harassment are guilty. This does not necessarily mean that nothing happened. While the individual’s actions might be determined not to rise to the definition of harassment, they clearly had a negative impact. However, if the actions were deemed not to be harassment, there is a possibility that, after the investigation, the accuser and accused will be required to work together again.
And, of course, there is the accuser who will be required to revisit and retell details of a difficult and stressful experience, often several times, in the course of an investigation. Regardless of how sensitive the investigator may be, many individuals report feeling victimized all over again by the process. If the investigation determines that harassment occurred and there are consequences for the harasser, this doesn’t mean that the emotional impact for the victim is over. And, as mentioned above, if it is determined that the situation does not rise to the definition of harassment, the accuser may have to work with the accused once again and may well feel intimidated and uncomfortable in this situation.
Clearly, regardless of the results of the investigation, the work environment is likely to experience significant tension and strain that will negatively impact functionality. Grudges can remain. Sides may be drawn. Trust is absent. It may be subtle where there is simply a sense that everyone is walking on eggshells with each other or it may be open warfare. But the reality is that the completion of an investigation into allegations of harassment is rarely, if ever, a process that heals and restores working relationships.
So how do you go about restoring the workplace in the aftermath of harassment? Here are a few key actions that you must take.
Talk to the accuser and accused.
In the case where both are still in the workplace, it is imperative to find out, from both of them, what they need to be able to bring a level of professionalism and sense of safety to the work relationship. If the accused has been determined to be guilty and removed from the workplace, it is still important to talk to the victim and find out what he/she needs to now feel safe in the workplace. If the individuals will continue to work together, mediation can be an excellent process to work through this. Be aware that the individuals may not immediately be ready for a mediation process. Coaching can frequently be valuable at this point, preparing individuals to engage in the mediation process. Coaching can also be an effective process for the individuals involved, allowing them to reflect and explore how their experience has impacted them, what they need/want to change, and how they can build and enhance their own resiliency.
Identify who else has been impacted.
Consider who was involved in the investigation as well as who has worked or is working with the accuser and/or the accused. Although it is not possible to give them details of the harassment investigation, in order for teams to work together effectively, there must be opportunity to address peripheral issues that are a result of the investigation process. This generally requires some sort of facilitated process wherein the team has the opportunity to discuss what they can and need to do to function optimally in the future. Allowing them to define the work environment they want to create and how they can make that happen will focus the team on the future rather than the past.
Give them skill sets for the future.
So often, harassment is the result of escalating conflict and/or lack of ability to address issues as they happen. Building capability in handling conflict, addressing difficult situations, communication skills, and the like will empower employees to resolve conflicts as they arise. While this won’t eliminate every type of harassment, it will mitigate the escalation and impact of many potential harassment situations.
Build an accountability framework.
While studies show that a significant percentage of workers say they have experienced, and/or are aware of co-workers who have experienced, harassment, the number of actual harassment complaints is significantly lower. When asked why this is, workers consistently say that they do not speak up about harassment for fear of retribution. This fear does not go away after a harassment investigation. In fact, the reverse is often true and fear is heightened. It must be clear to all involved that the employer is continuing to monitor the situation and is committed to building and providing a safe work environment. As individuals and teams make commitments for how they will work together in the future, these commitments must include how these individuals will be held accountable to their commitments.
Workplace restoration after a harassment investigation is possible. But it does take time to rebuild and restore morale and trust.
Our most recent webinar, Healthy Workplace Dynamics: Dealing with Harassment dug deep into this relevant topic. We went beyond the noise of the current headlines to give you critical actions you and your organization must take to prevent and address harassment. We also shared the approach that has allowed us to successfully restore work teams after harassment has occurred.
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