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by Mara Thorne
 
Human beings are sociable creatures, and most of us enjoy a laugh and a joke with our colleagues at work. Indeed, most people enjoy and value their social interactions in the workplace. A deathly quiet working environment, with no "buzz" about it, would not inspire many of us to get up in the morning...
 
But sometimes what may seem like a joke or a bit of "harmless banter" can backfire on an individual, who may end up being accused of harassment. So is this just a case of "political correctness gone mad"? What should an employer do, faced with an upset employee who feels he/she has been harassed, and an alleged perpetrator who is stunned and insists no offence was intended? What is harassment anyway?
 
Harassment can be defined as "unwanted conduct which violates a person's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment". It may be persistent or an isolated incident, obvious or subtle, face-to-face or indirect. And the effect on others can be highly damaging, ranging from embarrassment, upset and anger, to a dread of going to work or bumping into that person, insomnia, and even anxiety or depression. People may be driven to resign on account of such conduct - bad news all round.
 
Harassment can be on many grounds - race, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion - but one of the commonest types is sexual harassment. The sorts of behaviours that might constitute it range from jokes of a sexual nature, sexual innuendo, displays of sexual material, comments about a person's body, rumours about a person's sexual activities or preferences, discussions of a sexual nature, all the way through to pestering people for sexual favours, unwanted physical contact, and even sexual assault. Whereas it is clear to see how somebody might feel offended or intimidated by the more extreme behaviours on the list, it must be realised that telling lewd jokes or passing a girlie magazine around the office can also cause embarrassment and discomfort - not just to women but to men as well.
 
The particular difficulty with allegations of harassment is that different people react differently to the same situation. While one person might laugh heartily at a risqué joke, or participate freely in a discussion about sexual matters, another person might find it deeply upsetting or offensive. And the intention of the alleged harasser is immaterial; it is the effect on the recipient that counts.
 
So what should an employer do? As with so many issues in the workplace, setting the ground rules is the vital first step. Having a policy covering harassment in all its forms, laying out clearly what sorts of behaviours are unacceptable, and explaining how to go about making a complaint, should help prevent problems arising in the first place.
 
If an incident is reported, then you should listen carefully and empathically to the complainant. Don't substitute your own personal views on the matter; maybe you wouldn't have taken offence at that particular comment, but that's not the point. If an employee is upset, offended, embarrassed, or feels awkward about being around a colleague, it's not just bad for them, it's bad for business - and you have to take action.
 
Ask the person to describe the incident and tell you how they feel and what outcome they are looking for. Often they will say: "I don't want anything drastic to happen, I just want it to stop". Your role then is to talk to the perpetrator, explain the effect that their behaviour has had on the other person, make it clear that such behaviour is unprofessional and unacceptable, and decide whether disciplinary action is appropriate. In some cases, you may feel the behaviour is so unacceptable that dismissal is justified; if this is the case, you may dismiss summarily, without notice or pay in lieu of notice.
 
On the other hand, if the perpetrator is genuinely apologetic, the situation can usually be salvaged. Merely expressing that contrition to the victim may be enough to start the healing process. The first encounter between the two parties is likely to be awkward, so it may be helpful to facilitate the meeting yourself - or ask an HR professional to do so - ensuring that each party has the opportunity to express their feelings without interruption in a safe environment, and helping them to articulate and agree a way forward that is satisfactory to all concerned.
 
It's not easy, but with skilful handling and goodwill on both sides, it is possible to restore a convivial working atmosphere where people can have a laugh together without overstepping the mark.
 
 
For flexible, affordable advice and assistance with this and any other employment-related topic, contact Mara Thorne at mara@mthorneconsulting.co.uk or 01372 700139, or check out the website at http://www.mthornehr.co.uk