How to prevent and respond to cases of harassment in the workplace?

Building an inclusive workplace benefits everyone: organizations will thrive and grow, teams will perform better and the well-being of individuals will increase. Toxic workplace culture is a significant barrier to inclusion and behaviours such as sexism, discrimination and harassment have significant impact on workplace communities. In the aftermath of the #metoo movement, more and more brave individuals have spoken out about their experiences. These cases have shed light on the fact that harassment in workplaces has not been taken seriously enough. But what are the practical steps organizations should take to prevent and respond to cases of harassment? 

Studies show that harassment is still common in workplaces and too often cases of harassment are not reported or do not lead to needed actions. A study by EK revealed that only one in four employees who have experienced harassment report it forward to their managers or employers. This shows that organizations need to change their practices and culture related to cases of harassment, and step up their efforts to create inclusive and safe environments for all their team members.

Organizations need to change their practices and culture related to cases of harassment, and step up their efforts to create inclusive and safe environments for all their team members.

Some groups are more vulnerable than others when it comes to harassment. For example, studies point towards the tech industry being male-dominated and somewhat hostile towards women. According to the Resetting Tech Culture 2020 report by Accenture and Girls Who Code, 50 % of women in tech leave the industry by the age of 35, and 37 % of them cite non-inclusive workplace culture as the primary reason. This US based study also found out that women of color and Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LBT) women face even steeper challenges than other women in tech workplaces. Only 8 % of the women of color working in tech surveyed say it’s “easy” for them to thrive, compared to 21 % of all women.

In Finland, the 2021 Ingredients to Inclusivity report points that 30 % of women think it’s difficult to thrive in the tech industry. The study also found that of the women who have switched away from a technology role, 18 % left because they didn’t fit in to the workplace culture and 7 % because of sexual harassment or discrimination.

So what are the first steps your organization should take to create a safe environment for all and proactively prevent harassment? And what to do if there is a case of harassment within your organization? Here are a few tips from us, some of which we also shared in this Helsingin Sanomat article.

1. Preventing harassment – create clear policies and procedures

Firstly, in order to create safe environments for all, organizations must have a written code of conduct, training and clear policies and guidelines in place which prohibit inappropriate behaviors. It is important to make clear that bullying and harassment are not only inappropriate and unacceptable in the workplace, but also prohibited, for example, by the Finnish Occupational Safety and Health Act. Having these clear policies and procedures in place protects employees, but also helps employers to hold themselves accountable.

What can you do in order to prevent harassment in the workplace?

  • Have specific policies and processes in place to prevent bullying and harassment and communicate these actively in order to ensure employees’ safety.
  • Have a clear process in place for reporting inappropriate behaviours. The effectiveness of these processes should be continuously monitored to ensure they are fit for purpose.
  • Remember to guarantee an anonymous way of reporting to make it safe for everyone. From December 2021, a new EU directive obliges companies with over 50 employees to have an anonymous whistleblowing channel.
  • Make training available for employees to understand anti-harassment practices and how to behave inclusively in the workplace. Consider making this training mandatory for all managers.
  • Ensure your leadership team is committed to making it a priority to prevent uncomfortable and unsafe situations for employees.
  • Measure harassment e.g. as part of a DEI survey or employee surveys to gain understanding of the root causes and how to further prevent them.
  • Communicate clearly how cases of bullying and harassment will be dealt with.

2. Responding to workplace harassment – take all cases seriously and act immediately

It is important to take bullying and harassment cases seriously. If they are not addressed immediately, they can have long-term negative impacts on company culture and individuals.

What should happen in an organization if harassment is reported?

  • Take immediate action
  • It is essential to report all concerns of inappropriate conduct to a dedicated contact person, leadership team member or a manager as soon as possible.
  • Refer to the internal guidelines of anti-harassment behaviour. If they are not in place, make it a priority to create them immediately.
  • Conduct an immediate and impartial investigation and take appropriate action to remediate or prevent the prohibited conduct from continuing. It is crucial that every report is taken seriously and leads to necessary actions agreed as appropriate by all parties.
  • Document the investigation and the steps you took to remedy the situation.

Bear in mind that these are not easy things to talk about, so employers must have safe ways to raise these issues honestly. If you think you have a “safe and anonymous” process, but no one is using it to report things, it may not be perceived as safe by your team, and may need a re-think.


3. Moving towards harassment-free and more inclusive environments – how to create long-term commitment

There are no quick fixes to these things. Taking these matters seriously requires long-term ongoing commitment and tangible action – not just words. Everyone in the organization needs to be actively involved in creating a better working environment but the main responsibility for creating inclusive culture falls to the leadership.

Long-term commitment requires:

  • A leadership team that is engaged to set clear values for the organization.
  • Training for leaders and managers on DEI topics, e.g. anti-harassment or inclusive leadership practices.
  • Long-term strategic effort that needs to be carefully thought through. One-off workshops or training will not create the change required.
  • Active efforts to engage everyone across the organization in the conversation and actions that follow.

Seeing results will take time, but making a clear commitment to change – and communicating it openly – will be the essential first step. To succeed, it is important that people in the organization believe in your commitment and trust you. Having a clear plan and taking concrete action helps build this trust.

Essentially, whenever these issues are raised, employers need to take reports seriously and commit to doing everything in their power to change practices and culture. How swiftly and firmly you react to these situations, as well as how openly you communicate about them, will enhance a sense of safety among all employees. Leading an organization comes with a responsibility to create safe environments in which all team members can thrive.

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