Reporting inappropriate conduct when there is no HR Department by Katie Stull, MBA, PHR, SHRM-CP
Inappropriate conduct is not reserved for companies with HR departments. Foul language, bullying, and yes, sexual harassment occur in companies of all sizes and cultures. If you can’t turn to HR for help, what can you do if you experience or witness inappropriate behavior?
First, have you considered what constitutes as inappropriate conduct in the workplace? According to dictionary.com: inappropriate- not suitable or proper in the circumstances; conduct- the manner in which a person behaves. Any behavior that is illegal and/or doesn’t align with the company’s values or culture is inappropriate conduct. Ask yourself, “does that behavior violate what I understand to be the company’s policy or value?” Describe what you are experiencing or witnessing using only facts; be careful not to add any detractors or modifiers like “never,” “a little bit,” or “always.” For example, Casey said “she only got this job because she’s pretty” about me to a client on January 2, 2019.”
Next, let’s look at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance relating harassment in the workplace (I find it to be an excellent guide for all conduct concerns).
1) Confront the issue directly- tell your co-worker to stop exhibiting the inappropriate behavior. People don’t always know they are having a negative effect on others. After all, we were not all raised in the same cultural and societal norms. This can be uncomfortable, so take a moment and prepare what you want to say. Sally, I need to share my perspective with you. When you tell jokes about women it bothers me, and I don’t believe they align with XYZ Company’s value of inclusion.
2) If you aren’t comfortable talking directly to your co-worker, or the behavior doesn’t stop after you do talk to them, follow these steps:
a) Check to see if your employer has a policy related to the inappropriate conduct (examples include a Harassment Policy, Violence in the Workplace Policy, or Bullying in the Workplace Policy). If there is no specific policy for the conduct you are experiencing, use the Harassment Policy as your guide.
i) Follow the steps in the policy. The policy should give you various options for reporting the inappropriate conduct, including how to file a complaint.
b) If there is no policy, talk with a supervisor or manager. You can talk with your own supervisor, the supervisor of the person displaying inappropriate conduct, or any other supervisor in the organization. Explain what has happened, and ask for that person’s help in getting the behavior to stop. It’s important to be able to factually identify what you are experiencing or witnessing without any subjective words or phrases. For example, Joe has continued to rub my shoulders without permission even though I’ve asked him to stop twice. Agree on a follow-up communication plan to close the loop.
No matter which option you choose, if the inappropriate conduct continues after confront your coworker or you report it to a supervisor, start keeping notes. In a journal you can keep with you (including taking it home at night) or by emailing a personal email address, document the date and time of experienced or witnessed inappropriate conduct, who was involved (including witnesses), and a factual description of what occurred. Go back to the same supervisor you spoke to in step 2 and make sure they understand the conduct is still occurring. Give them a copy of your notes (do not hand over your only copy of your journal) and ask them for help. It can be easy to assume they ignored you the first time you reported inappropriate conduct, but check your internal story and ask the supervisor what to expect next. If what’s next is unclear, go ahead and suggest the supervisor run it by an employment attorney; feel free to share this article with them too!
While not required, I strongly suggest you talk to a friend about what you are experiencing. It can be someone you work with or a personal friend. Share what you are experiencing and what action you’ve taken. Keep records of these conversations in your journal/email too. Don’t keep your experiences internalized; that only opens up the possibility of shame to rear its ugly head. See the work of Dr. Brenѐ Brown for more on this topic.
In most cases, inappropriate conduct stops after the first confrontation (whether that is by a co-worker or a supervisor). It’s important to consider that not all inappropriate conduct is illegal and not all company cultures set the same expectations. As I stated before, people don’t always realize they are being inappropriate and need to be educated on the company culture. If you believe you are experiencing illegal conduct, consider these steps and dive into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website and research what to do beyond reporting the conduct to your employer.
Katie Stull cares deeply about HR and providing professionals with the right tools to succeed. She is Chief Human Resources Officer at DART and oversees the human resources department for all of DART’s nearly 300 full and part-time employees. She is also Past President of the Central Iowa Chapter of SHRM. You can reach Katie at email@example.com.