Harassment may or may not involve members of the opposite sex. It can be male on female, female on male or sex on sex. Your coworkers engaged in harassment can have many different motives, often hard to discern.
It is sometimes hard to determine if one is being harassed or not. A peer or boss challenging someone to do their best may do so with best intentions. The target being uncomfortable may be healthy. Or perhaps the entire scenario is pure, raw rage intended to destroy.
I think seldom can the target of healthy challenges or the victim of harassment successfully determine by themselves which is occurring unless the activities range far out on the fringes. Coming from work to the parking lot every day and finding your tires slashed is clearly harassment. But is the boss always challenging their people to do their best harassment? The attitude of the latter may be in the eye of the beholder.
Some clues to help you out. That boss that fails to heap praise as often as she heaps challenges is likely a serial harasser, perhaps one with problems of his own.
I worked for a CEO like this once. He had harassment down to a fine art. Over the years, I have referenced him a number of times in these columns. Yet, had he been directly confronted, I don't think he would have seen himself as a harasser. His challenges were universal and non-discriminatory in nature. He never fired anyone, but plenty, as I like to phrase it, "ran screaming from the building."
There are several tests you can perform to determine if you are being harassed. The first is the "spinning the invoice printer" test. Are the actions you are concerned about genuinely motivated by the goal of "spinning the invoice printer" where you work? If they are, it is highly unlikely they fit the category of harassment. They can be poor management and rotten practices, but they do not rise to the level of harassment. A second test is this: are you being targeted singly, or are the actions you see and consider harassment being dished out to everyone in your coterie? If there is equal misery all around, you may have a bad coach filled with rage, but again it may not rise to the level of harassment of you as an individual.
Stated another way, harassment is usually focused on one individual and has no clear business objective--it is personal.
In my experience, harassment has been more of a problem with the under thirty and the under forty crowd than it has been with older people. The under thirty crowd's experience with group activities has been their family life as they were raised and possibly team sports. I had no experience with team sports. I was raised in a family where your personal expression took the form of teasing, received and delivered--there were no direct confrontations involving problems that needed to be solved. This background made me a terrible manager, a condition that took me until about age thirty-five to shed. I know there were people who worked for me who thought I harassed them. At the time, however, had someone confronted me, I would have been genuinely shocked at the accusation.
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The harassment that we must root out is that directed at an individual by another individual. As stated at the start, it may or may not involve the sexes. I once knew a person, for instances, who received anonymous letters via the postal service (not internal company mail) that made the vilest of accusations. They could never figure out the source. Eventually, the harasser got bored and quit.
That is another key to what you have in your control. Most harassers live to see your reaction. No reaction, they move on.
As a boss, it is your job to look out for serial harassers in your group. You are the first line of defense in protecting your employees from these actions. Employees who come to you feeling harassed need to be carefully interviewed and the conditions carefully examined. Again, you are the first line of defense in stopping workplace harassment.
As an employee, should you feel harassed, your boss, or in the case where your boss is the harasser, your boss's boss, is your place of recourse. Sadly, if you cannot get the attention you need from these people, your most effective recourse is likely to leave. Suing, even if you can find a protected category in which you fit, will take years, has a small chance of success and will unfairly mark you, the victim, as a difficult employee. It's not right, it's not fair, but it is reality.
In a society that places great weight today on victimhood, it is appropriate that you examine your own feelings, perhaps with the help of an outside counselor or a trusted mentor. Today, we hear of employees, especially in their twenties, wanting to bring their parents to their annual review. They may feel harassed, but I would be surprised if an impartial observer would agree with their assessment.
If you are a harasser, you better hope someone else outs you before I do. Running a company is difficult enough without having to deal with people who come to work with a prime objective of harming their fellow workers instead of "spinning the invoice printer." You are a waste of company resources and a distraction to our goals. Don't expect a good recommendation to be attached to the boot that ejects you from the building. Get yourself some professional help, determine and address the real source of your rage; resolve to rejoin society as a productive contributor.
For safety this week, people on either side of an active harassment situation are not focused on safety. Yet another reason to root this from your operations.