Of the many types of harassment that a person can experience in the workplace, indirect harassment is one of the more dangerous ones to become a victim of. This is because indirect harassment involves the harassment committed by an individual which does not directly affect another employee in particular. However, the act causes the workplace to become toxic and results in certain employees feeling marginalized or offended.
What constitutes Indirect Harassment?
Indirect harassment can usually be a by-product of direct harassment, which will result in a negative change in the work culture. Indirect harassment manifests itself in the following ways:
- Lewd jokes
In case an employee makes a rude joke at the expense of someone else in the office, it is considered indirect harassment. Although the joke is not directed at the person hearing it, it can still foster a misogynistic attitude in the workplace.
- Emails with sexual connotations
If one of the co-workers purposely or accidentally sends an email containing graphic content that another may not prefer to see, it will be considered indirect harassment. This is especially harmful if the material makes the unintended recipient feel uncomfortable.
- Spreading rumors
Employees may secretly talk negatively of their colleagues regarding their personal life. In addition to this, it is considered harassment if one employee gossips or comments on another employee’s body or physical attributes with or without their presence.
- Forwarding offensive messages
It can happen when one employee forwards obscene or derogatory messages on the official work messaging group. This causes other employees to feel offended, therefore, constituting harassment.
- Witnessing harassment
It is possible that witnessing the direct harassment of a co-worker can be extremely detrimental to the mental well-being of another employee. Whether it is verbal or sexual abuse of another employee, the one who witnesses it is within their rights to lodge a complaint.
Therefore, looking at the several instances where indirect harassment could occur, one may realize that it can occur more commonly than one might think.
Why is Indirect Harassment Hard to Penalize?
From the definition above, the first thing that one might notice is that indirect harassment tends to affect more than just one individual in the company. If, for example, an offensive joke is made against women by one co-worker, it does not only affect the woman to whom the joke was directly addressed. Rather, it can compromise the positivity at the workplace, causing it to become hostile in the long run.
What makes indirect harassment hard to detect is a result of two major reasons. First, it can be challenging to provide the proof required to show that the harassment took place. This is especially true in the case of derogatory statements that are made against one employee when no one else is around. It essentially becomes a “your word against mine” situation.
The other problem is that for the longest time, the negative psychological impact that most victims of indirect harassment seem to bring up is usually ignored. For example, an employee that sees their co-worker experiencing harassment may also be affected. However, many companies will not consider a complaint coming from someone who is not a direct victim.
Responses that Help Eradicate Indirect Harassment
Any form of harassment can mean bad news for a company. Not only are they responsible for the employee suffering the negative psychological effects of the harassment, but they are also likely to be handed a lawsuit. Therefore, companies cannot ignore the consequences that may take place if there are no measures introduced to stop indirect harassment.
For this reason, companies should consider implementing the following measures to prevent indirect harassment:
- Documenting allegations
When an allegation is brought forward to the HR department or a supervisor, it should be documented in detail to get a clear picture of the scenario. It is important to encourage the victim at this time so that they feel comfortable enough to recount the entire incident. The first time they recount the incident is key to the entire investigation and requires the supervisor or HR to listen attentively.
- Immediate action
Whether looking into an investigation or temporarily suspending the perpetrator, the company will have to ensure that the victim is protected from further harassment. The aim is to prevent the perpetrator from having any more contact, verbal or otherwise, with the victim, especially in case the perpetrator is looking to retaliate against them.
- Thorough investigation procedure
The investigation will involve a thorough scanning of the events to determine the extent to which the harassment has taken place. If this is a case of indirect harassment, it can be extremely helpful to bring in other employees who may have faced the same harassment to get their statements.
To make the entire process unbiased, it is also acceptable to bring in a reliable, neutral investigator to look into the matter. Confidentiality should be maintained for the information collected in the interviews. The victim should also understand any retaliation from the perpetrator is illegal and punishable.
- Unbiased conclusions
Getting both sides of the story may mean that there will be discrepancies between the accuser’s story and the perpetrator’s story. Therefore, the team of investigators should carefully craft a truthful narrative and come to a conclusion that is appropriate for the circumstances.
To do this, the accusations need to be investigated reasonably, and the investigator can choose to go with the “innocent until proven guilty” approach, especially if there are several witnesses.
- Communicate with parties
The conclusion that the investigators draw from the investigation will be disclosed to both parties. This conclusion can go one of two ways. The first instance, where there may be mounting evidence showing that the harassment took place and the accused is guilty. However, the other conclusion may show that there is not much evidence to support the accuser’s allegations, and the investigation will end with minor to no consequences for the perpetrator.
- Remedial measures
If the investigation indicates that harassment has occurred, the company will have to ensure that the victim receives the appropriate compensation and protection. In some cases, if the indirect harassment is serious enough, it may even result in the termination of the employment for the perpetrator. If the harasser is still employed, measures should be taken to ensure that they will not contact the victim.
The company will have to take a step back to determine how the perpetrator felt comfortable enough to harass another employee indirectly. In a sense, the occurrence of this harassment shows that there is a vulnerability within the harassment policy. Therefore, it would make sense to re-assess the policy as a whole and make the necessary changes.
Although it may be tempting for a company to take indirect harassment less seriously than other forms of harassment, it should not be so. This is because indirect harassment can affect different individuals and permanently taint the workplace environment in the long run.