No Harm Intended? Think Again
By Sharon Bar-David
Dealing with harassment issues is never a simple matter and things can be further complicated by a common mistake made by managers and HR professionals. They often dismiss a complaint or ignore questionable behaviours due to the absence of mal-intent on the part of the person engaging in those behaviours.
Life is easy when the behaviour is blatantly offensive. When one person fondles another’s breast, an “I didn’t mean to offend or humiliate” is not likely to go a long way.
My observations indicate that managers and HR alike cultivate somewhat of a blind spot when it comes to ‘grey’ situations that do not involve obvious questionable behaviours such as racist comments or unwanted sexual advances. The flawed rational seems to be: if the Source did not intend to harm, perhaps it is the impacted person who should acquire a thicker skin. When someone complains about George’s temper tantrums and sarcastic comments, we may suggest that the affected person become a little less Velcro-like and a lot more Teflon-ish. “After all”, you might say. “George will be George” or, “we can’t change people’s personality”. Or maybe, “you know, George has been like this for the past 30 years, and he’s retiring next year. Let’s just learn to live with it until then”. Or, an old favourite, “George is one of our best performers, and this is just part of who he is”.
This approach can prove hazardous. Mishandling complaints or letting people get away with questionable behaviours exposes the organization to potential legal challenges. A victim seeking remedy for the situation may, if not satisfied with the organizational response, take it further. Furthermore, the problem behaviour will become entrenched, to the detriment of the work environment, productivity and the retention of good people.
Here’s the good news: there’s a relatively easy path for avoiding this mistake. It involves putting the terms ‘Intent’ and ‘Impact’ to proper use.
‘Intent’ describes the Source’s motive and objective when engaging in action/s that offend or hurt others. ‘Impact’ refers to the negative effect of the Source’s actions. The question is: how much relative weight should we place on the Impact on others and how much weight should be given to the Source’s Intent?
At its very core, sorting out any respect-related situation is comprised of two key phases. This is true regardless of whether the situation came to light as a result of a complaint that was brought forth or simply via a manager or HR’s own observations. The two phases can occur swiftly, such as when a manager has to make a quick, on-the-spot decision. Or they may linger over a longer period of time, such as when HR is called to investigate a complex situation.
Regardless of length, the Intent-Impact pendulum swings dramatically depending on the phase in the process.
Phase one is the Diagnosis Phase. Its purpose is to determine whether ‘harassment’ – as defined by the organization’s policies or by the relevant legislation – has occurred. Typically, the actions have to be at least ‘unwelcome’ or ‘vexatious’. Many organizations have expanded their definitions to include behaviours that create intimidating, hostile or offensive work environments, interfere with people’s work performance or deny an individual dignity and respect.
It is at this juncture that managers and HR professionals tend to get confused. It is not uncommon for the Source to engage in unwelcome conduct out of sheer ignorance or lack of sensitivity. The majority of offensive behaviours are not consciously intended to harm.
This lack of intent to harm seems to obscure decision-makers’ ability to clearly see that the Source’s intention is a completely separate issue from the impact it may have on others. You can be deeply impacted even if the person meant absolutely no harm.
In this Diagnosis phase, Impact is the single most important factor. The laws of the land – and most organizations’ harassment policies – are heavily weighted in favour of Impact. Organizations are required to ensure that they provide employees with a safe work environment that enables them to perform at their best. If the actions of an individual or a group are impacting negatively on another person’s subjective sense of safety or dignity, then the pendulum tips in favour of protecting that person, even if on occasion someone may abuse this protection. Obviously, the alleged impact has to meet some reasonability test. Saying that a colleague’s affinity for wearing brown clothing is offensive because it is reminiscent of Nazi uniform would likely not meet such a reasonability test.
Once Impact exists, we can safely ascertain that ‘harassment’ occurred. Now the organization is legally and morally bound to ensure that such harassment ceases immediately. Even ol’ George, with his long-standing, taken-for-granted nasty temper and approaching retirement will need to be called to task.
Phase two is the Intervention Phase. It comprises of establishing how to best address the situation and following up with action. The possible courses of actions vary greatly depending on the severity of the situation, the organization’s culture and the person’s work history.
Only in phase two does Intent finally enter the scene. The Source’s Intent will play a pivotal role in determining the type of corrective action that will be taken. In those cases where there was no conscious intent to harm, some education, awareness-raising or straightforward coaching will suffice. Other times, a more rigorous response is in order.
Ascertaining whether or not the person intended harm is not a simple feat. Most people will claim to harbour no intention to offend. Sometimes, even when there’s no conscious intent to harm, there are powerful subconscious motives driving the behaviour, such as a need to establish power or dominance.
In the final analysis, when the confusion and noise are removed, it’s a fairly simple proposition. Ask, was someone impacted negatively by another’s unwelcome or offensive actions? If so, you are required to act. Once you’ve determined that action is needed, its precise nature will be greatly influenced by the Source’s intention.