How to help the worker you suspect is harassed
Harassed persons need that you listen to their story. © Colourbox
It is important that the person exposed to conflict or harassment, is heard. It is necessary to set aside time for workers who come to you with this type of issue. These cases are often long-lasting and complex. It can mean that if someone starts to tell you about such situations and you do not have the time just then, you should invite the worker/patient back for a second conversation to make sure to have enough time. The employee should be encouraged to bring some detailed examples of what he or she has experienced. The person may be stressed and therefore the presentation may be incoherent, but being listened to in an accepting way will often help the person to settle and enable them to present their experiences more clearly.
b) More information is needed
Even though you trust the information given by the person harassed, you cannot conclude that harassment has taken place by speaking to only one person. There are always two sides to a case and to determine that harassment in fact has taken place, demands also information from others (so called contradiction). The harassed worker should be informed about this, and asked to find persons that can confirm the situations he or she has experienced. In some situations this is difficult, and other types of evidence must be found, such as letters, e-mails, sms etc.
c) Health examination
It is important to examine the health of the harassed worker, and if you are not a physician, you should find one to help out in the situation. Different physical and psychological symptoms may have other causes that the possible harassment, and unexpected diagnoses may be found in such situations. In the case of Paul, it is for instance relevant to check his health including the blood pressure, as severe head ache can be caused by hypertension, as he himself suggested. Severe hypertension needs treatment, and it may also be the case that a person with hypertension might not work in an optimal manner. Maybe Paul has hypertension and has not worked very well the past months, due to this? And this may have led his superior leader to evaluate his work as insufficient? This could have been the situation, but I can tell you that in this particular situation, Paul’s blood pressure was fairly normal (130/85) and his colleagues later told me he had done an excellent job.
Helpers are needed for harassed persons. © Bente Moen
d) Supporters must be found
Regardless of whether you have been able to determine harassment or not, the persons exposed are often isolated and it is important to find supporters. Professional supporters can for instance be employee representative, occupational health service personnel, colleagues, and general practitioners. It can also be important to underline for a harassed person that family and friends should be told about the situation. A social network is of major importance to reduce the feeling of isolation and insecurity.
A harassment case is likely to dominate all arenas of life, including family life, and there is an increased risk of a breakdown of relationships following harassment. Although it is wise to let the family know about the situation there are instances when the harassed person has overloaded the family. In such cases a professional therapist or counsellor would be of help. It is also important to make agreement with the spouse (family / support people) to limit the time spent on the matter and to focus on other topics. Other initiatives such as having a pet or increasing physical activity are other ways to avoid having the case come to dominate all of a person’s life arenas.
e) Action must be taken
All the time we must bring forward the message:
Harassment must be stopped!
A harassment case is in principal a case between the management and the employee, at least in most countries. If it is established that there has been harassment, is it the employer’s duty to stop this. This requires different solutions than in minor conflict situations, where we sit down with the two parts to find a solution. In the situation of harassment, the harassment might have started out as a conflict, but over time one has gained predominance over the other and the normal conflict solution model will not solve the case. In such cases there can be no negotiation between equal partners.
There are consultants in some countries that will give consultations to persons who have harassed others. The company may decide that the persecutor has to go through a program; that it could be of help for the person to learn how to change their behaviour.
The harassed person needs advice and you can, for instance, tell about the need for documentation and help to find supporters. The harassed worker needs to talk about what he or she is going through, and the use of a therapist can be of help if you cannot give this type of support yourself. You can help the worker to set up needed meetings with supporters as well as with the management at the work place. In some particularly deadlocked (difficult) situations, the employee should consider a change of work place or employer to protect themself.
In a specific harassment case, the harassed person should pursue the case through the particular routines made for these types of cases at that particular workplace. To not do anything will not solve the case, and to “wait and see” is not always the best strategy. However one should discuss the risks of pursuing the case with a trustworthy person. In some few instances “wait and see” can be a useful strategy, if one for instance knows that the persecutor soon will be leaving.
If the management calls a meeting in a conflict or harassment case, the employee should always bring a supporter. If this is not required by laws or rules one can always ask for permission to do so. It is generally a good advice to bring a supportive person in difficult cases, even if it is not a harassment case. In the notice of meetings, the agenda must be clear, as we have seen examples where the agenda has come as a big surprise for the employee, and this has been a traumatic experience. Minutes must be written from the meeting, where the decisions from the meeting are clearly stated.
What happened to Paul? He came to see the doctor and talk about his situation three days in a row. He expressed clearly that he needed to talk to someone about this. He did not believe he could change the situation. He did not want to approach the leaders at his company. Instead, he quit his work and got another job. The whole thing happened very quickly, and he said afterwards that it was a good solution for him. A month later his blood pressure was normal.
© University of Bergen/Authors: B.E. Moen, N. Magerøy