“What level of tolerance does your organisation have for workplace harassment?”

Alison Best




Article 11. (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

It’s almost a rhetorical question and one I ask often in sessions about workplace behaviour. I know how participants will respond - as if it was scripted: - “Zero.”  

Last week a thoughtful group of young professionals changed the script:

We don’t know.” 

What? I pause. I try a different question:

What level of harassment does your organisation’s policies and code of conduct allow?


Back on track. We are on the same page... Perhaps not...

But the second question you asked was a very different question.”

Tell me?"

Well – we know what the policies say – but we won’t know what is really tolerated until we see what [the business] does when something actually happens.”

Good point.   A carefully crafted (legally watertight) policy 'bumper sticker' is one thing.  Day-to-day reality can be something quite different. 

So - if ever there was a time for some brutally honest reflection it is now.  What do your people see your organisation do when something actually happens? And do you need to fix that?

You have the policies no doubt. Do they work? Do your people believe in them? Trust them? Will people speak up when there's a problem? The cacophony of sexual misconduct allegations in the public arenas of politics and the arts show this is critical.  

If they do speak up what will happen?  If standards and policies are unclear or are seen to be selectively or inconsistently applied - they mean nothing. Particularly if the rules are 'bent' for the productive, profitable, popular or powerful. 

It is imperative that both sides – accused and accuser – can depend on fair and transparent process.  The rule of law – applied without fear or favour. 

In an employment relations situation - there needs to be confidentiality, where possible, for both parties. Accused and accusers.  

Neither the complainant, the alleged harasser, nor the organisation benefits if careers and lives are ruined before proper process has happened.  It creates risk, uncertainty and fear (and the high probability of resentful and damaging backlash).  That's been bothering me a lot in the light of recent allegations and public shamings.  Innocent until proven guilty.  A fundamental principle of natural justice and a cornerstone of our legal system and it has to apply no matter how loudly or publicly allegations are made.  

Every organisation needs a transparent, dependable process that mandates:

  • Safe route(s) for allegations to be raised.
  • An impartial investigation carried out without any prejudgment.
  • A fair hearing.  Where the accused can defend him or herself.
  • Consistent and fairly applied sanctions.
  • A chance to appeal.
  • A clear and demonstrable approach to retaliation.
  • A clear and demonstrable approach to malicious allegations.

Organisations need people to speak up. Speak up well. And while the clamour for equality and respect is so loud - it is important that the right to due process is applied to both sides. It should not be lightly withdrawn from those against whom allegations are made.  Shame and fear are not good bases for building positive workplaces.