Small Business Brief


Tough Conversations: How to Talk to Your Staff About Workplace Harassment

A recent survey showed that 80% of women had experienced sexual harassment. While much of that will have occurred in public places, a significant amount of workplace harassment still exists. 

So if you run a small business, how do you begin to talk to your staff about this issue?

Conversations about harassment can be difficult. People sometimes do not feel comfortable sharing painful experiences. And it can be a fine line to tread to educate your employees without them feeling accused of wrongdoing.

So if have not yet talked to your staff about workplace harassment, read our guide to find out how. 

Define Workplace Harassment

One of the first things you need to discuss with your staff is the definition of harassment. 

Everyone in your workplace needs to have a clear understanding of what constitutes harassment. This enables them to identify it when they see or experience it. It also gives them an understanding of what behavior they must avoid. 

It is possible that some of your employees may have differing ideas about what constitutes harassment. Something that one person may regard as banter or joking, may be deeply offensive to another. 

Often, just the act of clarifying what harassment is can reduce workplace harassment. Some people may not be aware that their behavior is inappropriate until you point it out to them.

Does Your Workplace Have a Harassment Problem?

20% of all Americans have been sexually harassed at work. So if you apply that statistic to your workplace, it is possible that 1 in 5 of your employees has experienced harassment. 

While the figures may not be that drastic in your workplace, it is still likely that sexual harassment has occurred. 

It may be a painful thing to admit to, as no one wants to believe their business has this problem. But admitting that there is potentially a harassment problem, is the first crucial step in putting it right. 

It may be the case that you have never seen, or experienced, sexual harassment yourself. It is also possible that, as a manager, you have never received a complaint. However, that does not mean it has never happened. 

There are many reasons why people do not always report harassment. If victims worry that they will not be believed it can create a barrier to reporting harassment. So if you appear to be in denial that harassment is a possibility in your workplace, it could deter people from reporting it in the first place. 

Share Stories

Talking about definitions of harassment is vital to developing a strategy to deal with it. However, definitions can sound quite academic and like something from a procedural rulebook.

The next step in your conversation with your staff is to open up and share stories. This will give people a more emotional and vivid understanding of what you are talking about.

It may be painful for some of your staff to talk about previous experiences, so do not put anyone under any pressure to do so. But if you have these discussions in small groups, and calmly talk about your own experiences, it will create trust.


As mentioned above, victims are sometimes worried that their stories won’t be believed. 

If your employees do not feel that anyone will listen to them, not just about harassment, but about any concerns, it will increase stress in the workplace

Even if your staff are struggling to understand your definitions of harassment, it is still important to listen to their views. Shutting down conversations about harassment is not a good strategy, so always demonstrate you have an open mind. 

Men, in particular, may be resistant to harassment training initially. This is because they may infer some level of blame. 

Listen to their concerns, and ask them to expand on their thoughts about this subject. Then you can begin to reassure them.

Be Approachable

One of the qualities that all successful managers share is that they are approachable to their staff. 

It is important that staff feel they can come and talk to you about anything. If they don’t, they could be experiencing problems that you will never know. 

Sexual harassment can be a very upsetting and painful thing to experience. Victims often find it hard to talk about, as it may involve some intimate details. 

Therefore you need to let your staff know that you will always listen in a non-judgemental way and take their concerns seriously. As a business owner you are probably very busy, but make sure your staff knows where and when they can contact you. 

Explain the Procedures

Every business and organization needs to have a policy on sexual harassment. You should make sure that your business has a clear policy on harassment, which includes how people can report it. 

Once you have written your policy, then it is advisable to hold meetings with all of your staff to explain it to them. A good way to do this is to hold a series of seminars in small groups, depending on the size of your business. 

Make sure you have some printed copies of the policy that your employees can keep with them. Also, make sure it is on your staff intranet or emailed out to the whole team.

Your workplace harassment policy should include:

  • The definition of harassment, with examples
  • What the law says about sexual harassment
  • Who victims should report harassment to
  • What the process is for a complaint and how long it might take.

It is very important your staff have a clear understanding of what happens next if they make a complaint of harassment. Employees should know who the designated HR staff are who would deal with the complaint.

Your staff may also need to know more about the state laws are regarding harassment. In serious cases they may have to report the incident to the authorities, so they should have an understanding of what that might entail. 

Small Business Advice At Your Fingertips

So those are some tips on talking to your employees about workplace harassment. Make sure that everyone understands what harassment is, why it is wrong, and what they should do if they experience it. 

Be sensitive to the fact that these are often difficult and painful conversations. And above all: listen. 

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