The Warning Signs of Workplace Harassment and Discrimination

workplace discrimination

Employees may be reluctant to report incidents. Employers need to recognize signs of distressed employees and act on them.

If employers are learning anything from the headlines today, it should be to pay attention to their employees and keep an eye out for any signs of harassment. Employees who experience discrimination or harassment may confront the issue by discussing it with a manager. But some, as in the case of the fed-up JetBlue employee, release the emergency door and slide on out in a dramatic exit.

Employees don’t always feel comfortable bringing harassment and discrimination incidents forward, as fear of retaliation and being singled out by fellow employees adds additional stress. In some workplaces, the culture and tone from management may also hinder an employee’s willingness to come forward. However, employers are responsible for providing employees with a safe workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination. Part of this is learning to recognize signs of distressed employees. This helps to identify workplace issues and draws attention back to sections of the company code of conduct that may need to be reinforced or require additional training.

Recognizing Harassment and Discrimination

With frustrated employees making headlines at an increasing rate, employers need to pay attention and realize that discrimination, harassment and stress are growing concerns they are responsible for monitoring. Employers need to make it a point to identify issues before complaints are made. This aids in demonstrating management’s commitment to company policies and preventing workplace harassment and discrimination. Management at every level within an organization must be trained to recognize distressed employees.

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Here are some tips managers can use to observe and identify workplace discrimination and harassment before complaints are made:

Communication and Engaging with Employees

Communicating regularly with employees allows managers to pick up on changes in mood and gather pieces of information that signal something isn’t right. If an employee who is normally very talkative and open in sharing information suddenly closes up, monitor the situation to ensure there isn’t anything going on in the workplace to cause the change. The employee could simply be having a bad day, however, if their actions are prolonged, it might be wise to dig a bit deeper. Engaging with employees strengthens a company’s ethical culture and improves employer-employee relationships. When open communication is encouraged- and committed to, employees tend to develop a high comfort level when it comes to discussing sensitive topics with their managers. Managers who listen well, work with employees to solve problems and take action when a complaint is made; are easier for employees to approach when they have a problem.

Monitor the Workplace

When management is visible and accessible to employees, it becomes easier for them to ask questions and raise concerns right away. Take time to walk around and observe employees while they are working. This need not be done in an intimidating manner, it’s simply to address minor issues that can be quickly identified and handled. For example, if an employee has inappropriate pictures on their desk or computer screen, don’t wait for an employee to bring the issue forward. If a manger is walking around and notices it, address it right away, reminding the employee that it violates the company’s code of conduct. Maintaining a physical presence in the workplace helps managers identify changes in morale and team dynamics, which are key signals in identifying harassment and discrimination issues.

The article “Signs of Workplace Harassment,” suggests that if an employee looks to be singled out or has stopped socializing with their usual group of co-workers, managers may want to keep an eye on the situation to see what has caused the change. Managers must be careful not to cross the line into micro-managing or breathing down their employee’s necks. A manager’s presence in the workplace should be based on interest in the tasks being completed, an interest in their employees and being available to answer employee questions.

Document and Track Employee Performance

When employees are subject to single or repeated incidents of harassment or discrimination, their productivity and engagement at work suffers, and they may also take their frustration out on members of the workplace- which in some cases, has resulted in fatalities. Keep track of employee performance to identify trends that may lead one to conclude that something is wrong. An increased number of sick days, refusal to work on projects with certain employees, disengagement in tasks and decreasing scores on performance reviews may be the effects of harassment or discrimination faced by the employee. This may not always be the case, however, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Turnover and Resignation Reasons

The article “Signs of Workplace Harassment,” reminds managers to pay attention to the rate of employee turnover in a company. Sometimes it seems like good employees made a decision to leave a company out of the blue. Chances are, this isn’t the case and there’s something deeper causing them to leave a job they were good at and seemed to enjoy. Obviously some people leave for personal reasons or an increase in pay, but it’s important that employers use exit interviews to find out the root cause of an employee’s resignation.

An Important Note:

It’s important to remember that employees in different industries face different forms of discrimination and harassment. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety:

“Certain work factors, processes, and interactions can put people at increased risk from workplace violence. Examples include:

  • Working with the public.
  • Handling money, valuables or prescription drugs (e.g. cashiers, pharmacists).
  • Carrying out inspection or enforcement duties (e.g. government employees).
  • Providing service, care, advice or education (e.g. health care staff, teachers).
  • Working with unstable or volatile persons (e.g. social services, or criminal justice system employees).
  • Working in premises where alcohol is served (e.g. food and beverage staff).
  • Working alone, in small numbers (e.g. store clerks, real estate agents), or in isolated or low traffic areas (e.g. washrooms, storage areas, utility rooms).
  • Working in community-based settings (e.g. nurses, social workers and other home visitors).
  • Having a mobile workplace (e.g. taxicab).
  • Working during periods of intense organizational change (e.g. strikes, downsizing).”

Employers need to take extra precautions when monitoring for harassment and discrimination against their employees in these types of work settings. Take into consideration the different risks employees face and work to address these issues with employees to ensure they feel safe at work.

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Article Published August 17, 2010

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