Courageous conversations key to ending workplace harassment

- May 28, 2018 4 MIN READ

Marcela Slepica, Clinical Services Director, AccessEAP, suggests having courageous conversations is the first step for employers and employees wishing to end workplace harassment.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) defines harassment as unlawfully treating a person less favourably on the basis of particular protected attributes such as gender, race, disability or age.

However, Slepica suggests there is a danger harassment and discrimination can be so deeply ingrained in workplace culture it becomes normalised. In a world where many of our conversations about sexual harassment are framed around #MeToo it’s interesting to note the three most common forms of sexual harassment are subtle rather than obvious cases of assault.

According to research by the AHRC the most commonly reported incidents are focused on suggestive comments or jokes (55%); intrusive questions about one’s private life or physical appearance (50%); and inappropriate staring or leering (31%).

Slepica tells Kochie’s Business Builders (KBB) these less obvious acts can often be played down or attributed to simple misunderstandings where a victims concern are minimised and normalised by passing the offensive behaviour off as a joke.

“Classic examples include statements such as: ‘I was only joking’, ‘what happened to your sense of humour’, ‘I was only asking’ or ‘no one else seems to mind’. Similarly, Slepica explains approximately one in five (18%)[1] people have experienced behaviour which would constitute sexual harassment, based on the legal definition, but did not label or identify it as harassment.

“The important thing to focus on here isn’t the intention of the act, but its effects,”

“The person who feels impacted by the behaviour should not be made to question whether their response is valid. These attitudes are dangerous and can reinforce the very behaviour which makes the victim feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the workplace.

“Highlighting harassment can create anxiety and fears that our colleagues and our career will be detrimentally affected. This can also be compounded by our imagination, which can blow our concerns out of proportion There may be a power imbalance. The first step is to trust your feelings and take a calm collected approach,” Slepica says.

“This is not always easy, so take time to think, plan and then respond.”

Here are Slepica’s top tips for difficult conversations:

Be confident with your concerns

It can be easy to stop ourselves raising concerns by minimising their importance. For example, we may tell ourselves we are ‘just being silly’, we are ‘being too sensitive’ or ‘it’s not such a big deal’.

These thoughts are counterproductive because the fear keeps you from being courageous. If the issue is impacting you or someone else negatively or if there are consequences to not raising the issue, then it’s important. Be clear about the reasons why you are initiating the conversation.

Focus on the behaviour

Let the person know that it is their behaviour that is upsetting or concerning you. Be careful not to label the person as this can result in them becoming defensive. Counter their defensiveness by distinguishing the problem from the person and invite their input in how to address the issue.

For example instead of saying, ‘you’re harassing me ‘or ‘you are a bully’, lead with an example such as ‘when you say X I feel uncomfortable, or I feel bullied’.

Be clear and specific

Anxiety about how someone might react can lead to messages being ‘watered-down’. We may give a lot of positive feedback in amongst the negative, or we might talk generally to a group about behaviour that bothers us without speaking directly to the person involved.

The risk is that your message will not be heard by them. Say what you sincerely believe needs to be said, even if you know the person you are speaking to may not enjoy hearing it and be sure to phrase it in a way that is respectful towards that person.


This can sometimes be the hard part because people can be defensive or angry after hearing your concerns and feedback. They may deny that there’s an issue and even convince you it’s ‘all in your head’.

Before you launch into your opinion of the situation, listen first, don’t interrupt, explain, justify or defend. There are always two sides to a story and there will be time to respond later.

Respond calmly

Depending on how the person has reacted to your concerns remaining calm can be tricky, however, focus on clarifying the factual accuracies of what the person has said. Their feelings are subjective and you can’t change these.

The person may be angry with you for some time. Confidently re-state your concerns, but remember if you start getting upset, call timeout. You have to manage your own emotions first before you can respond well to others. You may need some time to think about what each other has said before you come to a resolution or compromise.

Advice for workplaces

Workplaces can also help by taking a unified approach to preventing and addressing instances of harassment in the workplace. Training entire teams to be vigilant for cases of harassment and educating them on how to deal with them will help change behaviours.

In just over half (51%) of cases of sexual harassment, for example, the witness or ‘bystander’ reported having taken action to prevent and reduce the harm of workplace sexual harassment.

Additionally, in 45% of cases, the reporting of the incident resulted in the harassment stopping. When dealing with a case of harassment it’s important to focus on the impact of behaviours, act quickly, clarify exactly what happened, create a safe environment and develop a strong action plan and preventative measures.

[1] The national 2012 Working Without Fear survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

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