For employers and managers, it can be difficult to distinguish whether a behaviour is related to harassment or conflict. It is an important distinction to make, as your response will likely be vastly different. In this week’s blog we will define and help you distinguish between the two workplace phenomena.
As defined by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, harassment is a form of discrimination which includes any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates someone. Generally, it is a behaviour that persists over time; however, some serious one-time incidents can also be considered harassment.
Harassment occurs when someone:
-Makes unwelcome remarks or jokes about someone’s race, religion, sex, age, disability or any other of the grounds of discrimination
-Threatens or intimidates you because of someone’s race, religion, sex, age, disability, or any of the other grounds of discrimination
-Makes unwelcome physical contact with another person, such as touching, patting, or pinching
Harassment often involves an imbalance of power, intense and personal attacks and it may be unidirectional, repeating and escalate over time.
In contrast, conflict involves two or more people who perceive that another person is getting in the way of their needs being met.
As Mayer (2012) describes, conflict appears on three dimensions – perception, feeling and action.
-Perception: the belief or understanding that our own needs, interests, wants or values are incompatible with someone else’s
-Feeling: conflict is often experienced as an emotional reaction to a situation or interaction
-Action (behaviour): the actions people take to express their feelings, articulate their perceptions, and get their needs met. This is especially noticeable when the behaviour has the potential to interfere with another person’s needs.
For employers and managers, when conflict is expressed along the action or behaviour dimension, some actions or behaviours may be similar to those involved in harassment. However, there are important distinctions.
What sets harassment apart from conflict
Unique characteristics of harassment include:
-Unidirectional and involve repeated, escalating episodes
-Intense and personal attacks
-Intentional infliction of harm on someone else
-Time loss – the target may miss time at work (this may also happen with conflict for either or both of the parties)
-Imbalance of power
-Open broadcasting – bully openly telling others about their disdain for the other
In contrast, when people are in conflict in the workplace, they are likely to keep it quiet, and it is most likely to involve a two-way or multi-way exchange. The legal definition of harassment is a very serious standard, and it takes a lot to meet the threshold. Although some behaviours don’t meet the legal definition of harassment, they can still have an impact on those receiving the behaviour and lead to problematic outcomes for the organization.
Feeling lost about how to deal with harassment or conflict in your workplace? We can help with that – contact us for a consultation today.