How to Spot Abusive Behavior and What to Do About it
This is the first of a two-part series on ethical conflicts in the workplace. The next blog deals with employee-generated actions that can have legal consequences. Today I deal with discriminatory actions by one’s employer that go unresolved.
Have you been sexually harassed by a co-worker or your supervisor? Are you a victim of gender discrimination? Have you been cyber-bullied in the workplace? These are three of the most troubling issues that cause distress for an employee and create ethical dilemmas in the workplace. I have previously blogged about these issues and provide links to them below for more comprehensive coverage. My goal today is to provide advice on how to spot discrimination and what to do about it.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. The legal definition of sexual harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”
A hostile work environment is defined as: sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when such advances, requests, or conduct have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.
To show a hostile work environment, an employee must prove the following.
- He/she was subjected to conduct of a sexual nature (e.g., inappropriate touching, sexual epithets, jokes, gossip, sexual comments, requests for sex, sexually suggestive pictures and objects, leering, whistling, sexual gestures).
- The conduct was unwelcome.
- The conduct had the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.
- The conduct unreasonably interfered with the employee's work performance or altered the terms and conditions of employment.
Be sure to document your concerns – what did the abuser do or say? When did he do it or say it? What did you say to him? How did he react to your concerns? Give a copy of the document to a trusted advisor or lawyer for use in any future legal action. The advisor can attest to the fact you provided the document on a specific day so that it wasn’t created after the fact.
Let’s assume your boss threatens to stifle your career advancement unless you sleep with him. This is unlawful whether you submit and avoid the threatened harm or resist and suffer the consequences. Your first step should be to make it clear to your boss this is an unwelcomed advance. If the offensive behavior persists, you should report it to the HR Department where Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) matters are dealt with. You can also file a complaint with the EEOC and/or your state’s fair employment agency.
Gender bias is wrong in any form whether based on age, sex, or sexual orientation. The law has not caught up with the rights of transgender individuals but the spirit of the law should protect trans people in the workplace. The workplace should be a welcoming environment and the culture one of inclusion.
Gender identity issues have surfaced recently because of the landmark opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, that established same-sex couples can marry nationwide. It’s not a leap to focus attention on the rights of the LGBT community. The basic ethical principal here is one of fair treatment. Each of us deserves respect for who we are. Discriminating against anyone based on gender identity is wrong. After all, what does this have to do with workplace performance?
Gender identity discrimination can include terminating a transgender employee after the employer finds out about the employee's gender identity or planned transition; denying a transgender employee access to workplace restroom facilities available to other employees; harassing a transgender employee; permitting and/or refusing to investigate claims of harassment by coworkers and supervisors; or any other negative employment action taken because of an employee's gender identity.
Discrimination based on gender identity is not specifically prohibited under federal law but there are legislative efforts to pass federal laws to make it explicitly illegal. There is also some case law interpreting sex discrimination laws to encompass gender identity in certain circumstances. Protection from gender identity discrimination is enforced by state or local anti-discrimination agencies in 18 states.
Given the relative newness of gender identity issues, I suggest you first contact The Human Rights Campaign for advice and emotional support. HRC works to achieve equality for the LGBT community and represents a force of more than 1.5 million members and supporters nationwide.
Workplace Bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s) including physical and emotional stress.
Workplace Bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and injustice in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work. Bullying is different from aggression. Whereas aggression may involve a single act, bullying involves repeated attacks against the target, creating an on-going pattern of behavior. “Tough” or “demanding” bosses are not necessarily bullies so long as they are respectful and fair and their primary motivation is to obtain the best performance by setting high yet reasonable expectations for working safely.
Cyber Bullying in the Workplace usually looks like offensive emails or text messages containing jokes or inappropriate wording towards a specific race, nationality, or about sexual preference. In these cases, the words uttered have a direct effect on the target of the bullying act through threatening email being sent to the target anonymously or not. It might include a response that is copied and pasted for the whole office to see.
Sharing embarrassing situations relating to the target with everyone online, being offensive and mean to the target on various social media websites and networks, spreading rumors or gossip online which could have a serious effect on a fellow co-worker, and downright mean-spirited actions are meant to harm the target whether on a personal or professionals level.
Cyber bullying can cause significant emotional distress and significantly lead to diminished workplace performance. The danger of cyber bullying in the workplace is that it follows you home after working hours. The target is put under constant harassment even when the working hours are over. The only way to avoid such harassment is having it reported to try and put an end to it.
Cyber bullying in the workplace needs to be addressed through promoting a work environment that refuses to nurture a bully. As with most actions in the workplace, the best way to prevent cyber bullying is to create an ethical culture in the organization. Top management must make it clear that any form of bullying will not be tolerated.
If you would like advice about your situation be sure to contact me using the “Ask Your Workplace Ethics Question” link on my website.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 31, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at www.ethicssage.com.