Workplace harassment remains rampant and reporting of it remains low, according to a 2015 report from a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force.
Workforce diversity and inclusion rank among the top five challenges for U.S. companies this year, according to Fast Company. CEOs are setting performance targets and companies are investing in training and HR to support an increasingly diverse workplace.
But in the cubicles and conference rooms, many employees have yet to notice any difference. According to a 2015 report from a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force, workplace harassment remains rampant and reporting of it remains low.
It’s still common to overhear inappropriate remarks about someone’s race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, marital status or disability. And it’s even more common for those of us who overhear these remarks at work to be uncertain about what we can — or should — do about it.
While employees may be uncertain, the Washington state statute that applies to private sector companies, RCW 49.60, is pretty clear: When harassment occurs, employers must take action.
“What the law requires is that employers cause the conduct to cease,” says Sheryl Willert, a senior attorney at Williams Kastner in Seattle whose practice focuses on employment law. “What the employer does depends on circumstances. It could be a verbal warning or another form of discipline.”
Deliberately hostile comments are the ones most likely to get reported to management. But many people find themselves puzzling over what to do when they hear something “borderline,” often a joke or comment that reinforce outdated stereotypes. The speaker may not recognize the comment is offensive and inappropriate.
“A remark doesn’t have to be intentional, and it doesn’t have to be directed at you, for it to constitute harassment,” says Willert.
For instance: A colleague makes a statement such as “We should hire more Asian women, they’re so cute” or “Who cares what the old codgers in Finance think?” That’s considered creating a hostile environment, even if there weren’t any Asian, or older, co-workers in the room to hear it.
“The bystanders should act when they perceive that someone else is being treated inappropriately in the workplace,” says author and training consultant Barbara Deane, codirector of the NW Diversity Learning Series.
She helps companies equip employees and managers with skills and systems that enable them to resolve or safely report incidents of harassment. These include an agreed-upon phrase (such as “Ouch!” or “I’m uncomfortable”) people can use, in the moment, as a reminder to signal concerns and put the brakes on harassment.
It’s in companies without such training and tools that people are reluctant to speak up — particularly if the person making offensive remarks is a manager.
Willert and Deane suggest approaching the speaker in private with your concerns. Or you can approach another witness as an ally, asking if the remark was a problem for them and if they would like some support from you.
Even if you’re sure the speaker had no idea they were being offensive, Deane recommends action. Without feedback, the person is likely to go right ahead making offensive remarks.
“Tell them, in private, how there remarks made people feel,” she says. “Ask what their intent was in making the comment. Tell them what you hope they will do differently in the future.”
If feedback fails, Willert recommends making a report to a manager or human resources.
“Absolutely, report,” she says. “I encourage my clients to make it clear that everyone is expected to participate in the enforcement of these policies and procedures.”
Deane believes that more companies will invest in diversity training and policies because reducing workplace harassment is good for the bottom line.
“Enduring workplace hostility incurs a cost,” she says. “It takes a toll on individuals and the organization.”