Emerging Issues in Security

Should We See Sexual Harassment as a Workplace Violence Issue?

The definitions of workplace violence and sexual harassment seem unrelated at first, but since HR and security professionals are so often called in to work together on both issues, the crossover between the two policies suggests these incidents share several commonalities.

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Sexual harassment, as a continually problematic issue in the workplace, can range widely from inappropriate comments to leering looks to actual sexual battery of an employee by another employee, vendor, or visitor. Workplace violence shares some parallels, with threatening language at one end of the policy violation spectrum to assaults, injuries, and homicides at the other. When discussing each issue with managers and supervisors in the training environment, it’s useful to look at the consequences for each concern. Both problems could result in discipline and, more likely, termination for even the use of words. These include harassing or threatening language that serves to intimidate, demoralize, or frighten employees into not wanting to come to work, be in the same room with the person who has made them feel uncomfortable or fearful, or even quit their jobs to get away from that person.

At the extreme ends of the problems—unwanted and illegal physical sexual contact and physical violence causing injury—the HR and security response should definitely involve calls to the police. These are not only policy violations but also criminal penal code violations as well. Sometimes, it may be the victim-employee who doesn’t want HR, security, or senior management to do anything other than “put it on the record” that these things happened. Worse, it may be senior management that doesn’t want anyone to contact the police on behalf of the victim-employee out of concerns for bad publicity to the public or clients. HR is much less likely to discourage an employee from reporting a sexual assault or workplace violence injury because it is so much more aware of the significant liability concerns for not supporting employees for these serious matters, regardless of the potential for bad publicity.

Sexual harassment or workplace violence perpetrators may share another discomforting trait: their need to minimize, rationalize, deny, or blame other people or the misinterpreted context of the situation for why they acted as badly as they did. Consider the similarities in these two parallel situations: when a male employee grabs a female employee in sexually assaultive way and when a male employee hits another male employee following a disagreement in the break room:

Minimize:     “I just brushed up against her; I hardly touched her.”

“I barely tapped him on the jaw. I didn’t even hit him that hard.”

Rationalize:  “She kept sending me mixed signals. I thought she wanted me to do that.”

“He kept pushing my buttons. I had to defend myself.”

Deny:            “I didn’t even touch her. She’s making the whole thing up.”

“I didn’t even touch him. He’s making the whole thing up.”

Blame:           “She started flirting with me months ago. Talk to her about her conduct, not me.”

“He started saying things to me a long time ago. You need to speak to him about what he’s been up to.”

The presence of these four distancing methods overlaps sexually harassing behaviors and workplace violence behaviors in surprisingly similar ways. HR and security professionals must support each other as they respond to these types of cases and look for common themes in their investigations and the use of consequences in not just discipline or termination but also in demanding a police investigative response.