Rosanna Duncan l Palladium - Mar 04 2021
We Should All Sweat the Small Stuff When it Comes to Harassment

In life and in the workplace, we often hear the phrases ‘choose your battles’ and ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. They prompt us to be more selective about the issues we choose to challenge and encourage us to not waste time or energy on what are seen as minor issues.

Whilst these two sayings often come packaged as mantras to help us alleviate stress in our daily lives and divert our attention and energy to ‘big issues,’ I believe that if we paid more attention to seemingly small things in the workplace, we could prevent some of the bigger issues altogether. This could be particularly true of workplace sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment doesn’t always begin at the overt and obvious end of the scale. Subtly problematic words and behaviours may be unintentional or could be a first step toward escalating abuse perpetrated by a knowing abuser.

The notion of sweating the small stuff has long been a concept embraced by the health and safety sector. The understanding is that little issues can pose a great risk for employees if they are not recognised and corrected. For example, on a construction site there’s a focus on preventing big incidents like workers falling from a great height, while ignoring smaller issues like a loose cable on the ground or a nail sticking out of a floorboard. The reality is that many of these work sites are more likely to have multiple injuries from workers tripping than one person falling from a height greater than 2 metres.

Those of us operating in sectors where we work with vulnerable and at-risk people should also exercise extra caution when letting the small stuff go. Sexual predators and abusers will look for weaknesses in organisational culture, and will gravitate towards organisations where their behaviours will go unnoticed or unchallenged. An organisation that ‘doesn’t sweat the small stuff’ may find itself becoming a safe haven for those looking to do harm, whether to the organisations’ people or the communities in which they work.

The reality is that it’s easy to grow accustomed to seeing little things happen in the course of our day-to-day work. Perhaps, it’s because we are more concerned with preventing what we perceive as possible bigger hazards, but in the end, we may be causing more harm and damage over time.

Alternatively, there’s a common assumption that someone else will be the one to act or sound the alarm, particularly in group scenarios where we can choose to assume that others have also witnessed the inappropriate behaviour. Others worry about the personal and professional repercussions of speaking out, exacerbated by company cultures in which doing so can come with negative consequences to relationships and careers.

In the face of so many reasons to ‘choose your battles’, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’ – reminding all of us of the non-negotiable role we have to play in calling out harassment, bias, and inequality. When we choose to challenge, there are no assumptions and no expectations that someone else will step up. Instead, it’s a call to action for everyone and anyone to challenge what they see or hear, whether directly or through whistle-blowing mechanisms.

Organisations are made up of individuals, but if those individuals don’t call out unacceptable behaviours around them, who will?

What Organisations Can Do to ‘Sweat the Small Stuff’

Some organisations are better equipped than others to drive this behaviour, but there are a few overarching actions that every company can work toward.

  • Create a culture where all employees understand their responsibility to create a zero-tolerance approach to unacceptable behaviours, and where providing feedback is considered a gift.
  • Ensure there are open and accessible complaints mechanisms and channels in place, and iron-clad protection for whistle-blowers.
  • Hold leaders accountable for their behaviours and make them responsible for setting high standards of behaviour for employees across the organisation.

Not every bad behaviour is malicious, but neither is every seemingly innocuous behaviour well-intentioned. We all have a role to play in preventing abuse and harassment in our workplaces, and it starts with working together to call it out when we see it – choosing to challenge and creating an environment in which abuse at any scale is not tolerated.

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