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Incidents of workplace abuse often fly under the radar. Managers need to learn how to spot such activity, respond immediately, and communicate with staff about the consequences of abusive behavior.
The fallout from Uber's alleged employee harassment and discrimination is still reverberating throughout the Silicon Valley, where tech companies with historically male-dominated workforces are fighting some of the same battles against sexism, harassment, and discrimination. In Uber's case, the company fired 20 people after examining 215 claims of discrimination, harassment, unprofessional behavior, and bullying.
As a manager, I once dealt first hand with a case involving one of my own employees who was being harassed and bullied on the job—and the circumstances were unusual.
The female victim was employed at my company and worked for me. She had broken up with her boyfriend and shortly thereafter, began receiving threatening emails from him at work on her employee email account.
At first, no one was aware of these emails. But when I'd passed by her desk several times and seen her crying, I approached her and asked her what was wrong. At first, she was reluctant to say anything, but she finally opened up and said that her ex-boyfriend was threatening and harassing her through her corporate email.
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That two of us went to HR, where she documented the complaint, including when the incidents first started happening, what types of threats were being made by whom, the time of day, etc.
Her ex-boyfriend was employed at another company and had been sending these threatening emails to her using his own corporate email account from his desk at work. We decided to have our HR department contact the HR department at the other company, which said that it would investigate the incidents and take the necessary action.
Hostility, violence, and discrimination have no place in a productive work environment for any enterprise of any size. This policy will help you define the rules and boundaries. Free for Tech Pro Research subscribers.
The result was that the harassing ex-boyfriend was terminated from his job. His ex-girlfriend, who was my direct employee, obtained restraining orders so that she could be protected.
As a manager, I learned four things from this situation:
1: You never know who on your staff could be getting harassed, bullied, discriminated against, or humiliated. Many times, people are quiet about the abuse that is being inflicted on them because they are ashamed or afraid. In one case early in my work experience, a male employee was getting bullied by co-workers. I learned about it only after he had left the company, when another employee came forward to shed light on the situation. The victim never said anything. He just quit.
2: You need to sensitize yourself to look for signs of employee abuse, bullying, or harassment. Seeing someone withdrawing from social interactions at work or crying at a desk are both potential indications of possible abuse. Over-the-top aggressive tendencies and loud, obnoxious, outrageous behavior all are potential signs of someone who might be a perpetrator of abuse. If you see any of these types of behaviors, assess the situation. If it warrants further investigation, do it.
3: You should immediately document incidents of employee abuse, discrimination, and harassment. The problem that Silicon Valley companies and many other organizations are facing is that attitudes toward abuse, harassment, and bullying have become tolerant over time. When abusive incidents get shrugged off, those perpetuating the abuse don't feel that they have to change their behavior. Every incident of abuse, harassment, bullying, and discrimination should immediately be documented in detail (who, when, where, how, etc.) and confronted. The abuser should be talked to, warned, or referred to an employee assistance program if the problem is chronic. The victim should also be met with and if necessary, counseled and/or referred to employee assistance.
4: You should let your staff know where you stand on employee abuse. A good way to get the ball rolling is by creating a formal corporate non-tolerance policy on abuse. The penalties for abusing others should be severe and consequential—i.e., "could possibly result in immediate termination or dismissal." The company should also provide education and training to employee staff members and managers on abuse in the workplace: what it is, how to recognize it, how to prevent it, and what to do about it.