Replacing Harassment with Civility in the Workplace

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recent report on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace found that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem and often goes unreported.  We see evidence of this from recent reports of women coming forward to talk about harassment they experienced years ago.

When someone comes forward with a story of harassment years after the fact, we naturally ask why they didn’t speak up at the time.  Fear, self-blame, cultural bias, expectations and past experiences – are all forces that combine to cause people to not report their experiences of harassment.  No one wants to be seen as a snitch.  “The least common response to harassment is to take some formal action – either to report the harassment internally or file a formal legal complaint.  Roughly three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.”[1]  Often it takes one brave soul, or an outside event to break the silence and give the victims the courage to speak up.

In the 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that workplace harassment was discrimination we have been training our employees to avoid sexual harassment and overt discrimination in the work place.   “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool – it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.”[2]  The EEOC concludes that training is most effective when customized to the specific workplace and employee groups.   The report authors state that to be effective, training “must be part of a holistic culture of non-harassment that starts at the top.”[3]  They point out the need to engage in two-way conversations that explain the dignity and respect we want in the work place in concrete terms.


Improving the Messaging

 We need to go beyond training and ingrain the message of civility into the fiber of our company culture. We need actions that clearly demonstrate the commitment of the top management, or training will be seen as hypocritical and will be ineffective.  Leadership and accountability are the two keys to developing a culture of civility and respect for all.

So how do we do this in a way that is genuine?  Most of us think we are great managers, but we often base our actions on our emotional response and not the logical response.  While we react with anger and frustration when things go wrong, we are also capable of empathy and compassion. The best managers help employees to learn from mistakes and in doing so create a culture where employees can come forward with problems and solutions.

The EEOC report discusses the success some schools and universities are having in training of young people.  The successful programs combine anti-bullying and bystander intervention training with concrete actions.  By empowering people to speak up on their own behalf and for others; and by promoting workplace civility, the best programs can change the social norms that condone harassment.

Creating the Compassionate Workplace

We can replicate this success in our workplaces by putting in place top-down programs that are based on managing with compassion.  As proven in many studies companies with compassionate and empathic management styles are consistently rated as the best places to work.  Applied to the issue of sexual and other harassment, compassionate management creates the environment where problems can be discussed and resolved.  It models the civility we wish to promote in the workplace.

The first step in creating a compassionate workplace culture is to adopt – and live by - simple yet clear policies that leave no doubt in an employee’s mind what is expected from them, how they can succeed, and what will land them in trouble.  This needs to be clearly communicated to every employee during the on-boarding process and then reminded of it on a regular basis. These policies need to be consistently enforced by trained managers, and supervisors who are held accountable for these policies.

Most people prefer clarity and consistency to ambiguity. Work performance, seniority or company position can never be a reason to overlook offending behavior.  One person allowed to continue with behaviors that your policies condemn negates the hard work you have put in to change the workplace culture.

Have set procedures to follow when a complaint about any harassment comes forward and follow them even if the complainant is reluctant to pursue the matter.  Discuss the issue with the complainant thoroughly, taking notes and getting details.  Then investigate the incident as confidentially as possible.  You may have to call in an outside party to do the investigation, especially if the harasser is someone senior in the company. If harassment is found to have occurred, even if it does not meet the legal definition, as the employer you must take discipline actions that are appropriate, consistent and proportional.  You also may need to take action to protect the complainant.  Do these actions in a mindful and compassionate manner.


“Harassment in the workplace will not stop on its own – it’s on all of us to be part of the fight to stop workplace harassment.  We cannot be complacent bystanders and expect our workplace cultures to change themselves.”[4]  Deep-rooted cultural biases are hard to root out.  Laws have been passed that deal with discrimination, whistle blowers and retaliation – all things we know should not be part of our culture yet still persist.  While the laws must play a part in your company policies, strive to go beyond the laws to implement a workplace culture that is based on the best in human behavior and instincts.  Root out the old mantra of go along to get along and build a culture where everyone is looking out for each other.  Strive for an empathetic and compassionate workplace and you will see many rewards.

If you need help setting up policies and procedures or a third party investigator please give us a call.  We can be reached at or 207-846-5403.

Carolyn Hughes


[1] Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, Report of Co-Chairs Chai R. Feldblum & Victoria A. Lipnic; Executive Summary & Recommendations; June 2016. (

[2] Ibid., page 4.

[3] Ibid., page 4.

[4] Ibid., page 5.