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All Employees Play a Role in Creating a Respectful Culture

A group of people wearing face masks at a table.

​When harassment and bullying happen in the workplace, attention often is focused on the target of the bad behavior and the particular incident, but it's also important to assess the culture where such actions take place, said Catherine Mattice Zundel, SHRM-SCP. 

The president and founder of Civility Partners, an HR consulting firm based in La Mesa, Calif., spoke on this topic when she presented the session "Be the Ally: Considerations for Creating an Inclusive Workplace" at the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) INCLUSION 2020 virtual conference.

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is "unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information." 

The agency estimates that 75 percent of all workplace harassment incidents go unreported, Mattice Zundel noted. Reasons for not reporting an incident include:

  • Fear of looking weak.
  • An expectation that the report will result in retaliation or go unresolved.
  • Hope that someone else will speak up on the target employee's behalf. 
  • A belief that the organization's culture perpetuates the problem.

"Often in HR, we get focused on the perpetrator and the target [of the harassment] and we forget to look at the bigger picture," such as the organization's norms and culture allowing such behavior to happen, Mattice Zundel said.

[SHRM members-only policy: Nondiscrimination/Anti-Harassment Policy and Complaint Procedure]

Workplace culture is everyone's responsibility, she says on her company website. All employees play a role—it might be the co-worker who acts as a kind of counselor by being a sounding board for the target employee, the colleague who acts as an informal mediator, or the witness who hears or sees the bullying take place but remains quiet, she explained.

"If you're going to prevent exclusive[ness], you have to focus on your culture," Mattice Zundel said. She shared the following ways organizations can foster a respectful workplace:

  • Conduct a climate assessment. Look at whether career advancement is limited to certain groups of people based on their gender or race, for example.
  • Train employees on the behaviors you want to reinforce, such as empathy and inclusivity.
  • Hold people accountable for their actions. SHRM has said employers should have effective anti-harassment policies that enable quick and thorough investigations of harassment complaints and hold perpetrators accountable.
  • Use the organization's core values to guide decisions and establish expectations. "A lot of organizations have pretty standard values around innovation, diversity and inclusion, and transparency, but they're not really living those [values]," Mattice Zundel said. One way to use core values to promote respect on a case-by-case basis is to explain to someone how an action or comment he or she made goes against the organization's core value of diversity and treating all people with dignity.
  • Practice inclusion in everyday actions. In meetings, for example, rotate administrative duties so that taking notes does not fall exclusively to the women in the room. 

Additional SHRM resources:
Harassment: Practices for Mitigating Risk, SHRM Team Training & Development
Ask HR: A Woman at Work Was Harassed but Won't Report It. Can HR Do Anything? SHRM Online, October 2020
Viewpoint: Tips for Creating Virtual Anti-Harassment Training During the Pandemic, SHRM Online, August 2020
Going Beyond Compliance to End Workplace Harassment, SHRM Online, July 2020
Retaliation, SHRM Presentations, June 2020
Coronavirus and Racism: Take Precautions to Fight Discrimination, SHRM Online, March 2020
Viewpoint: Workplace Harassment Is an Epidemic, and It's Time to Treat It That Way, SHRM Online, January 2019


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