How To Stop a Work Culture of Harassment (Part 1 of 3)

This article was originally published on October 12, 2017, and has been updated.

Odds are, you will never know there is a predator in your midst…I didn’t.

One of my direct reports was a bully, and I completely missed what was going on.

As a leader, it was my responsibility to create a work culture where employees felt they could come forward so harassment could be dealt with immediately.

I felt awful, because the team he led was made up of some of my longest serving employees, many of whom I considered friends. Yet they didn’t feel comfortable coming to me.


Leaders can allow and permit a culture where bullying, physical abuse and sexual harassment can take place.

I hear your blood-pressure alarm going off.

You’re indignant because you have a policy: ZERO tolerance for harassment.

You’re probably writing an email now to tell me the one harassment complaint you received was investigated and dealt with, and the predator was disciplined or fired.

But here’s the thing:

The news is full of organizations like yours, that pride themselves on strong leadership values.

These same organizations have binders full of policies that are replete with accusations of harassment and predatory activities—Canadian and American armed forces, the RCMP, and municipal police forces, to name a few.

So please save the energy you are about to spend on indignation, and invest that into action.

The Facts About Workplace Harassment

If someone is reporting harassment or bullying, I can assure you it has been going on for a very long time.

The statistics agree:

  • 52% of women report they have been harassed at work (CNBC)
  • 25% of all workers report some level of harassment or bullying (Queens University)
  • 33% of civil servants report they have been bullied or harassed (The National Post)

Canadian Business Magazine found that most people are victimized five times on average before they report or quit.

Most employees suffer in silence or move on to a new job.

Even in the most egregious form of harassment—sexual—a Huffington Post survey found that 70 percent of women who have been sexually harassed do not report.

Maybe I am too old and cynical, but I don’t think the human race will ever eliminate predators from the gene pool.

While I have my own thoughts on why these people exist, I’ll leave that up to psychologists.

What I do know and understand better than most is leadership.

What’s my point?

Predators exist, and they harass, abuse, assault, bully, and worse.

Are you really SO sure that it isn’t happening in your organization?

There are two interconnected reasons why you may never know what is going on:

  1. the victims do not trust the “system” to look after them; and
  2. the chain of command is seldom held accountable for the actions of the perpetrator.

Predators are persistent and ubiquitous and are currently—or will eventually be—in your organization.

It is bound to happen, but what you do about it is not preordained.

That’s what we’ll cover in Part 2 and 3 of dealing with a culture of harassment at work:

You need to build faith in the system so people will tell you (Part 2) and you need to hold your leaders accountable for what is happening on their watch (Part 3).

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check these out, too:

5 Tools That Helped Me Survive a Workplace Bully (Guest post)

80% Of Projects Fail Because Of ‘People’ Issues … Here Are 6 Things You Can Do To Reduce That Risk

People Pleasing Leaders & Soup Sandwiches – 5 Messes You Make When You Try to Make Everyone Happy