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Psychological Effects of Personal Harassment in the Workplace

How HR can help prevent unwelcoming behavior, and how to address the issue should it occur

by Christopher G. Aiello, Managing Partner at Aiello, Harris, Marth, Tunnero & Schiffman, P.C. - December 29, 2021

Workplace harassment can leave employees and HR managers in a confusing and uncomfortable predicament, which explains why most cases go unreported.

Harassment in the workplace takes many forms, including threats to a person, humiliating behavior, verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, and many more. It’s difficult to accurately determine the number of workplace harassment cases. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC receives and investigates thousands of complains each year. For instance, the EEOC has received approximately 82,847 cases concerning workplace discrimination. 

Sometimes, employees don’t recognize or understand the different forms of workplace harassment, and as a result, many stay in hostile work environments due to a lack of knowledge and awareness. 

HR, as the core of most organizations, has a big role to play in creating a safe work environment free from any form of harassment, especially given that all forms of workplace harassment might have adverse psychological effects on employees. On top of the already taxing psychological effects, employees dealing with harassment will likely feel negative impacts on their overall morale and productivity levels as well.

Now that we’ve covered the grim statistics, let’s talk about personal harassment in the workplace, how HR can help prevent unwelcoming behavior, and how to address the issue should it occur.

What’s personal harassment in the workplace?

Personal harassment refers to intentional, offensive, repeated actions or comments designed to demean an individual/employee deliberately or cause personal humiliation.

It happens when individuals use their position and authority with implicit power to sabotage, undermine or otherwise interfere with another employees’ career.

Examples of personal harassment in the workplace include:

  • Threats or implied threats
  • Name-calling, yelling, or swearing
  • Ignoring a person or refusing to have contact with them to the extent of compromising their ability to fulfill their work obligations
  • Demeaning jokes or comments regarding a persons’ body, character, or other personal aspects
  • Condescending remarks
  • Offensive and derogatory statements
  • Spreading rumors
  • Unwanted remarks and insults

Since it is often a non-physical form of violence, personal harassment is sometimes a grey area that does not appear in employee handbooks and company policies. It is also often addressed as a personal issue rather than a form of workplace harassment, which makes it easier to miss.

Psychological effects of personal harassment in the workplace

If not addressed in time, personal harassment in the workplace can have profound psychological effects. These include:

Anxiety

If employees find it challenging to get through their workdays, they might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, which can be a psychological effect of personal harassment. 

Anxiety happens when your brain reacts to stress and alerts you of potential danger.

While it’s a normal emotional reaction, excessive anxiety can negatively impact your behavior and productivity. Some victims avoid work or any social situations and interactions that could trigger or worsen anxiety symptoms. 

Depression 

Depression will affect your thinking, acts, and feelings and can be caused by personal harassment in the workplace. It leads to decreased or loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, either at work or home. Further, it lowers your ability to function at home or work.

Symptoms of depression vary from mild to severe. They include;

  • Feeling sad
  • Changes in appetite
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in certain activities
  • Purposeless physical activities like hand wringing and pacing
  • Increased fatigue
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness

Depression is more likely to affect individuals with low self-esteem, pessimists, or those easily overwhelmed by stress.

How can HR help to prevent personal harassment in the workplace?

While it is the duty of everyone to stop and report harassment in the workplace, the role of HR goes further by designing and creating a safe work environment for employees

However, some HR departments fail to execute their duties and responsibilities as required, as outdated HR methodologies might encourage them to protect the company first.

The results: A hostile work environment with low productivity, high turnover, and overall toxic team culture. 

Sometimes, individuals fail to report cases of personal harassment to HR because of a lack of trust, so here are some ways HR can create a safe workplace and prevent personal harassment.

  • HR should build trust among employees

Victims of personal harassment fail to report their cases to HR potentially because of a lack of trust. They might believe that leadership won’t believe them, investigate fairly, and address the issue appropriately. However, HR has a unique opportunity to build trust among the employees and encourage them to speak up.

First, HR should open a line of communication and keep it open to every employee. This includes being transparent and asking employees for feedback.  HR should be approachable and should tackle problems head-on. Additionally, they should encourage every employee to report anything that feels like personal harassment. 

Utilize a safe and secure HR platform or software where employees can report cases of personal harassment without fear. This includes anonymous suggestion boxes, harassment reporting software, or even speaking to victims in a private location or outside the office/company premises.

  • Create personal harassment policies

Every organization or company has policies to guide employees on their work matters; what to do and what not to do. Unfortunately, many policies focus on the productivity and growth of the organization but do not necessarily address the personal well-being of all of the stakeholders within the company’s ecosystem. These stakeholders do not just include the employees, but also the contractors, suppliers, customers, and other persons who may deal with the company on a regular basis. 

HR should create a concrete policy that explicitly addresses personal harassment in the workplace. The policy should define personal harassment and the acts under it and also clearly indicate how and where cases of personal harassment should be reported. It should assure the victims that all reported instances will be investigated and appropriate actions will be taken against offenders. This can help greatly reduce personal harassment instances in the workplace as well as give employees the courage to come forward.

HR should also have privacy and security procedures in place to protect those who come forward and report cases of personal harassment. 

  • Offer training and education

The most effective way to prevent personal harassment from even beginning is to educate and train employees. 

Proper harassment training creates a safe workplace for everyone,  by laying out clear expectations for acceptable and professional behavior at work. 

Training should also be reinforced regularly, and not brushed off as a one-time task. This will provide refreshers for employees who may have been with the organization for many years, as well as set the standard for new employees. Aim to conduct anti-harassment training at least twice a year, and make it mandatory for each new hire, as part of the onboarding process.

When employees feel safe in the workplace, they are more confident and productive,  build stronger and more collaborative relationships with colleagues, and work better as a team to achieve individual and company goals.

Last Word

Personal harassment in the workplace can cause significant psychological effects to employees, which will affect the organization as a whole. HR has a responsibility to create a safe work environment free from any form of harassment. They should build trust among employees, create personal harassment policies and offer continuous training and education opportunities.

If you or your employees are victims of personal harassment, you should report the matter right away. If the case isn’t settled as it should be, seek help from outside the organization Aiello Harris law firm, experienced employment lawyers, offers help and advice with any issues involving workplace harassment and other matters relating to workplace relations.

Author Bio:

Christopher G. Aiello has been practicing law for over 35 years and is the managing partner of Aiello Harris, Marth, Tunnero & Schiffman, P.C. Mr. Aiello has represented large corporations such as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation, and The Hertz Corporation. He has given opinions and advice in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. For his adherence to legal ethics and superior skills, Mr. Aiello has earned the highest rating possible of AV Preeminent* from Martindale-Hubbel as well as being selected to Top 100 Trial Lawyers List, Super Lawyers® 2016-2021 and is top rated on Avvo. He currently represents clients throughout New Jersey, including Middlesex, Somerset, Hunterdon, Union, Morris, Essex, Sussex, Warren and Bergen counties

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