Up there in the top three training sessions that I am most asked to run for businesses is Workplace Bullying and Harassment training. Sometimes the catalyst for the training is due to a specific incident occurring and other times it has come about because the business leaders recognise the need to be on the front foot and for managers and employees to understand their rights and obligations in this area.

A fundamental part of this training is understanding the definitions of Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment. Let’s look at these briefly.

Discrimination: Discrimination occurs when a person, or a group of people, is treated less favourably than another person or group because of their background or certain personal characteristics, such as race, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc.

Bullying: According to the Fair Work Act, workplace bullying is defined as: “repeated unreasonable behaviour by an individual towards a worker (or group of workers) which creates a risk to health and safety.”

Harassment: Consists of behaviour that is or may be perceived to be offensive, abusive, belittling or threatening towards an individual or group or people based on a discriminatory characteristic.  This can take many different forms and may include physical contact, displaying racially offensive or sexually suggestive and/or explicit material, or telling racially insulting jokes.

During these sessions, participants discuss what bullying behaviour looks like and various scenarios. Where these sessions always get quite interesting, is when the discussion turns to the ‘grey area’.

I would hazard a guess that most of us, at some point during our working years have witnessed questionable behaviour at work. Behaviour that doesn’t necessarily fall into the black and white definitions outlined above, but behaviour that nonetheless has the potential to create a negative work culture, negatively impact the company’s reputation, reduce morale, reduce productivity, increase conflict, increase absenteeism and possibly even result in regretful turnover.

In part one of this blog post, let’s explore some of these ‘grey area’ behaviours, factors to consider and what this may mean practically for your workplace.

Name Calling: nicknames may be commonplace in your office, and hopefully more often than not, will be harmless. Where caution needs to be exercised is if the nickname creates a hostile or offensive working environment.  Language that may be interpreted as sexist or demeaning in any way, may lead to individuals feeling bullied or harassed.

Banter: The spectrum of what constitutes banter is wide: joke telling, exchanging teasing remarks, pranks or taunts.  On one end, when the object of laughter is good natured and inclusive it’s unlikely to humiliate or offend others. On the other hand, obviously degrading remarks or intentionally cruel jokes targeting an individual are likely to be unwelcome and uninvited behaviour that likely amounts to bullying or harassment.  In between these two extremes lies ‘joking banter’ that can be far more subtle and insidious. Regardless of the intention we should assess the specific relationship we hold with someone in the workplace and determine where our ‘bantering’ relationship starts and ends… often what we perceive to be as funny will be received in a different way.

Personal Contact: In most instances, in a workplace setting, physical contact (aside from a hand-shake or celebratory high-five!) is best to be avoided.  Why?  You’ll want to ensure that any physical contact can’t be misinterpreted as a sexual gesture or even assault.

Personal Space: this one always reminds me of the Seinfeld episode of “the close talker”. It may not be something we think about too often, until you find yourself in a scenario where your personal space is invaded.  For example, if you have ever felt uncomfortable because someone has stood too close to you. My tip here would be to ensure you keep a comfortable distance between yourself and others that you are engaging with.

Personal space also extends to respecting other people’s workspaces.  You should really only step into another’s workspace if you know you are welcome. Be respectful if you sense that the person is busy. Think about asking the person if they can chat now or if another time would suit them better, maybe even consider sending the person a calendar request in the first instance.

While some or all of the above may seem obvious, what’s not always obvious is how different individuals will interpret certain behaviour.  Different people, with different life experiences and different world views, may differ in what they consider to be acceptable behaviour.

What this all means for you as an individual and your workplace:

Ultimately, how behaviour is interpreted, will often come down to the history of the relationship between individuals and how well they know each other.  No two scenarios will play out exactly the same due to the nuances of the relationships that exist. Regardless, ensuring that you maintain a level of professionalism at all times in the workplace will help to make sure that your behaviour doesn’t make others feel uncomfortable.

Creating and fostering of a professional workplace culture will help guide managers and employees in the area of acceptable workplace etiquette and behaviours.

Consider that while individual incidents may be considered minor or appear to have little impact on the person being subjected to the behaviour, over time, where a pattern of behaviour continues and is not addressed, it may undermine the standard of conduct within the team, impact team morale and negatively impact productivity.

Our next blog post will explore more examples of what questionable behaviour can look like in the workplace. If there are any particular scenarios or behaviour that you would like to see addressed in part two, reach out and we can consider including those.

And if you require assistance in managing a particular situation, defining your organisation’s culture or to create your Bullying and Harassment and Anti-Discrimination policies, feel free to give us a call.

Nick Hedges is the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners.

Disclaimer: The contents do not constitute legal advice, are not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.

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