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The Costs of Harassment, the Value of Prevention

Every organization decides where to allocate resources to prevention, and where to reaction. Given the realities of scarce resources—time, money—and uncertainty about the future, it’s not possible to prevent every problem that could occur. This article makes a case, though, for the opportunity to save money through prevention in the area of workplace conflict, especially in cases of alleged harassment. It will look at one case in particular where this could have been done.

I consulted to an organization that was dealing with a man who had been found to have sexually harassed two coworkers. I read the investigation report, and also spoke to the department manager, and understood that the two women had been quite upset by the harassment. The fact that the harassment was described by the investigator as relatively low-level (the term “annoying” was used by one of the complainants) does not, I’m sure, take away from their experience of it.

I met with this “respondent”, and heard his story. Upon being accused of harassment, he denied it, but asked for mediation so he could apologize to the complainants. The complainants were not willing to meet. After the investigation found that harassment had occurred, though not in all of the alleged circumstances, this man had a mild stroke and had to have medical treatment. He also had to face his wife and children and explain what had happened.

The respondent felt strongly that the investigator, who was the internal Sexual Harassment Officer, had been biased from the start, and had coached the two complainants. Consequently, he filed several grievances against the employer. He had a witness who could testify to the bias of the investigator. The very real possibility was that the organization could face considerable embarrassment. For this reason, the organization launched a review of their complaint process.

Altogether, here are the costs of this harassment issue, in general terms:

  • Personal costs to the complainants and the respondent, as well as to coworkers, family members, etc. Lost pay for the respondent after being suspended for a week. A drop in morale for all involved.
  • Financial costs of doing an investigation, hiring me to provide sensitivity training, then going through a grievance process to arbitration.
  • Time involved, and lost productivity, for all individuals to deal with this issue, and to conduct the review of the complaint process.
  • Embarrassment for all involved.

Now let’s consider what prevention might have meant. The respondent says that he had never in his career been given harassment or sensitivity training. Moreover, this was his first experience of being accused of harassment. It is realistic to assume that a good one-day workshop would have raised his awareness about the risks of some of his behaviour. Next, one can ask, why did the complainants not tell him that the behaviour was unwelcome? The allegations, in general, were low-level and not necessarily obvious. The respondent was not in a position of authority. The answer might be that the complainants were uncomfortable asserting themselves. It is likely that a good one-day training on how to assert oneself in cases of harassment would have altered their choice.

The added benefit of preventative training is that it demonstrates the employer’s commitment to a respectful workplace. It forms part of the due diligence to uphold human rights.

This case is not rare. Either it has happened in your organization, or it will. Why wait for the consequences?


Daryl Landau

Daryl Landau is a Mediator who specializes in employment and human rights cases. Daryl has a Master's degree from the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (George Mason University) in Virginia. He has worked as a Mediation Officer at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. He is the co-author of the… MORE >

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