Employee harassment undermines teamwork

Harassment of employees, whether sexually based or not, undermines teamwork and may set up employers for liability issues. It’s time to openly address this issue on all farms.

Great farms thrive on teamwork. Teamwork means that all employees are on the same page with management and that they help one another do the things needed to move the farm toward its goals. It doesn’t mean that everyone is a star employee or that mistakes aren’t made. Instead, it means that no one acts alone; others are there to help and pick up where something was missed and all employees feel valued by the whole team.

However, that does not describe the reality on many farms. The reality on those farms is that employees are divided and do not mix, work well together, or set others up for success. Divisions may be by different shifts where employees don’t talk to one another, or according to major job areas (i.e. cow or crop), ethnic background, age, or gender.

But there is something that happens on many farms that tears teamwork apart – harassment. Maybe you are not aware of it, maybe you have turned a blind eye to it, maybe you just don’t know how to handle it, but harassment in the workplace is all too common.

What is harassment? There are various definitions, but in general it is unwelcome conduct or behavior that creates a hostile work environment that negatively affects a person’s job performance. The news is full of reports of sexual harassment that occur in workplaces from Hollywood to rural community farms. Not only is sexual harassment a demand for sexual favors in exchange for some benefit (work scheduling, raise, etc.), but it also includes a hostile work environment that is created by repeated comments, un-requested personal photos, unwelcome touch, or continual request for dates.

Be aware that harassment can come from a woman or a man, that the victim does not need to be of the opposite sex, and that the harasser can be a fellow employee, supervisor, or even a farm visitor, and that the owner may be legally liable. Harassment based on gender, national origin, color, religion, disability, age or race is illegal. But what does that have to do with you?

You may never do a thing to harass any employee, yet still be liable by what you have not done. As an employer, you are responsible for the workplace environment. You are responsible for the policies that employees should follow. What you tell employees, or don’t tell employees matters in regard to what happens.

Think for a minute about animal abuse. If you never address it with employees, and never check to make sure that animals are always treated with respect, then you are turning a blind eye to abuse. And if you hear of an incident and do nothing about it, then you are facilitating it. Do you think that you will not be liable if an incident is made public? The same applies to harassment of employees.

You have a stake in the work environment for all employees. Productivity hinges on people working well together. Harassment of any type will negatively impact that. Harassment will increase worker absenteeism, employee turnover and may increase accidents on the job. You may have a more difficult time recruiting employees to a place that has a reputation of harassment. Harassment also opens to the door to lawsuits.

What can you do? Start with the goal of positive teamwork on the farm. That should be a core value that you communicate to all new and current employees. Respect for one another is the foundation of teamwork. This should be explicitly expressed in employee meetings and examples of it should be highlighted. You need to set the example yourself of showing respect for every employee.

But beyond that, you need to be upfront about addressing harassment. First, don’t assume it doesn’t happen. The reports in the news tell us that it is far more common than we have ever imagined. Therefore, be proactive in addressing it. Don’t wait until something happens. Address it now.

The Cornell University Agricultural Workforce Development website recommends 5 steps that every employer needs to take:

  1. Prepare a written policy. If you have an employee policy hand-book, make sure that it addresses harassment. Address if in the context of both its illegality and the core values of your business. If you don;t have an employee handbook, this may be the issues that brings your need for it to a head. See the MSU employee handbook template. 
  2. Review the policy with employees. Do this pre-hire and regularly. There should never be an opportunity for your employees to say “I didn’t know”.
  3. Train everyone at hiring and annually. Explain what harassment is and the implications of it. Develop a procedure for how to report experiencing or witnessing it and the steps that will be taken when reported. Make sure employees understand these.
  4. Act immediately when a complaint is made. Don’t sit on a complaint, even if you don’t believe it. Investigate it. Get the story directly and determine whether the complaint constitutes harassment. Take action.
  5. Document everything. Beginning with the awareness of the policy by the employees to trainings that are done, all should be documented. If a complaint occurs, record what you have learned and what actions you took.

Follow up by emphasizing teamwork and respect for each other, with all employees. Focus on the positives with messages such as these: we are a team; we behave as a team; we care for one another on the team; we work with everyone on the team; we work toward the goals of this farm so that there are increasing opportunities for the team.

Don’t ignore the serious problem of harassment. Take the lead in addressing the issue with employees and developing a policy and procedures to confront it. Take the lead in developing a culture of respect for one another and teamwork on the farm. The benefits will be a more satisfied and productive workforce.

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