The workplace is a challenging environment. When hundreds of individuals of different backgrounds, ideals, and personalities are required to interact with each other for work, there are bound to be conflicts. However, when differences in opinions escalate to hostility and maliciousness, it becomes a case of workplace harassment.
The pandemic-imposed remote working only made it easier for colleagues and superiors to harass other employees. Emboldened by the sense of security provided by being behind a screen, it became increasingly easy for workplace harassment to occur.
What is Workplace Harassment?
Workplace harassment can be anything from a foul-mouthed boss who hurls abuses when things don’t go their way to passive-aggressive peers who pass snide remarks or exclude you from group gatherings to employees or managers who thought that’s something they said or did was “just a joke.” Essentially, workplace or corporate harassment refers to any unwelcome or offensive behaviour, actions or conduct from anyone at a workplace, creating an intimidating, hostile and toxic atmosphere for an individual or a group of individuals. These actions could violate the individual’s dignity, rights, or well-being, and can significantly impact their mental health and performance at work.
It's important for employers and employees alike to be aware of workplace harassment and take appropriate measures to prevent and address it, fostering a safe and respectful work environment for everyone.
The Different Faces of Workplace Harassment
Often, stereotypes portray bullies as physically strong, socially popular, and verbally aggressive. However, the reality is that a bully is not just a tall, muscular, foul-mouthed colleague. It could be a group of individuals engaging in micro-aggression such as taunting or making insensitive comments. Bullying is multifaceted, and real-life bullies can exhibit a wide range of characteristics and behaviours. Bullying can be exhibited by individuals of any background, and it is not limited to specific stereotypes.
Workplace harassment can take many forms. It is important for both employees and employers to recognize the signs early on so appropriate action can be taken against the perpetrator.
Physical harassment is most attributed to bullying and can come in the form of intimidating behaviour that can cause bodily or property damage. It can be verbal harassment where perpetrators make derogatory comments, insults, offensive jokes, slurs or use abusive language towards an individual. Often, it can escalate to physical assault such as punching, hitting, pushing, and slapping. It can be an angry colleague making unwanted physical contact, gestures, or actions.
Cyberbullying can include sharing demeaning content about the victim, publishing fake accusations or rumours about the victim, or sending threatening emails or messages through social media. It can also involve creating fake profiles on social media or impersonating the victim to damage their reputation. With the adoption of digital work, there has been an alarming rise in cyberbullying.
Discriminatory harassment involves having an unfair bias towards an individual or creating a hostile environment based on their race, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. An employer may only hire individuals who fit certain discriminatory criteria. Although gender pay discrimination is illegal, women are still unfortunate victims of the gender pay gap.
Withholding promotions or impeding opportunities, demotion, or termination due to personal vendetta or retaliation is also a form of harassment. Employers may also fail to provide necessary accommodations or withhold opportunities and equal participation for people of determination. Discriminatory actions towards expectant or new mothers such as termination, or withholding maternity leave is harassment and considered illegal.
Sexual Harassment occurs when the perpetrator makes unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or any other conduct of sexual nature that interferes with an individual’s work, which also causes psychological and emotional distress.
Zero Tolerance: Employers’ Guide to Combating Workplace Harassment
Employers play a crucial role in creating a safe and inclusive environment and combatting workplace harassment. Always remember that prevention is better than a cure, so employers should establish preventative measures rather than waiting for an incident to occur before combative measures are taken. Vitally, employers should lead by example by fostering a culture of respect, equality, and inclusivity, and assure employees that in case of an incident, actions will be taken proactively and perpetrators, regardless of rank or hierarchy, will be held accountable. Employers should encourage open dialogue and introduce initiatives and awareness campaigns.
Establishing clear policies will help employers by cutting it at the root. Companies should develop comprehensive anti-harassment policies that clearly define behaviours that will not be tolerated, provide guidelines for reporting incidences, and emphasise zero tolerance for harassment.
Bystander intervention training and Inclusivity training for both managers and employees can be a catalyst for prevention. Employees must be trained to recognize, report, and confront harassment.
Encourage reporting by establishing confidential and accessible channels for reporting harassment incidents. This can be in the form of a dedicated hotline, an anonymous drop box, or a dedicated HR representative.
Promptly and impartially investigate complaints by ensuring a transparent investigation process, protecting the privacy of the complainant, and taking appropriate disciplinary measures.
Provide support resources for employees facing harassment, such as counselling, employee assistance programs, legal advice, or referrals to external resources since workplace harassment can take a large physical and mental toll and significantly affect an individual’s work and personal life and self-esteem.
Regularly evaluate and update policies taking law changes and work climate into account to stay prudent and ensure the effectiveness of preventative measures.
Finding your Voice
It’s natural to feel cornered when you’re being harassed at your workplace. Fortunately, the UAE takes workplace harassment very seriously and has laws in place to address and prevent such behaviour. It is crucial to know the laws so that if one finds themself in a difficult circumstance, they have the knowledge and forethinking to leverage their legal rights.
it's important to consult the specific provisions of the relevant laws and seek legal advice for a comprehensive understanding. Employers and employees should familiarize themselves with these laws and comply with their requirements to foster a safe and respectful work environment.
Article 14 of the New UAE Labour Law states “Sexual harassment, bullying or any verbal, physical or psychological violence committed against the worker by the employer, his superiors at work, colleagues or the persons who work with him are prohibited.”
Additionally, Article 4 addresses discrimination stating, “Any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, national or social origin or disability, which would have the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or prejudicing equal treatment in the employment, the maintenance of a job and the enjoyment of its benefits is prohibited.”
If an individual finds themselves on the receiving end of malicious advances, they are advised to maintain a detailed record of all instances of harassment and bullying, including specific details and dates. This documentation can be valuable when filing a formal complaint within the workplace. It is imperative that senior management or company owners not tolerate inappropriate behaviour.
If there is no improvement in the perpetrator’s conduct or if the company fails to take appropriate action, legal advice can be sought or the individual can file a case with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation.