Monday, July 28, 2008

Unwelcome behavior that’s impactful, abusive is grounds for termination
Stress for Success
July 29, 2008

Sam has been telling off-color jokes for decades. His colleagues have always laughed at them -- until recently when one complained to his boss. Apparently, the colleague, who’d always laughed at Sam’s jokes in the past, has a daughter who recently married someone of the race about whom the joke was told. Sam was informed by his boss that if it ever happened again he’d lose his job.

Sam now needs to understand the anti-discrimination law to avoid future complaints. Last week I covered two components of it:
§ The “harasser” must be exhibiting a behavior, not just an attitude. “He intimidated me,” isn’t a behavior but rather an opinion. “He blocked my attempt to leave,” is a behavior.
§ The behavior must be unwelcome by either the target or an observer.

Here’s what the rest of the law says.

Protected groups: The unwelcome behavior must be aimed at a person because they’re a member of a protected group (age, color, disability, gender, religion, national origin, and race.) For example, employees obstructed a disabled coworker’s parking space, which could be considered harassment if they did it because she’s disabled. If they blocked another’s parking space but not because they were a member of a protected group it may be disrespectful but not legally considered workplace harassment.

Hostile or abusive: Another requirement is that both the target of the unwelcome behavior and a reasonable person must perceive the conduct to be hostile or abusive. The reasonable person standard was included in the law to compensate for the fact that not everyone interprets behaviors the same way. The courts created this standard against which to evaluate unwelcome behavior.

For example, an adult woman and man, whose families are personal friends, greet each other in front of their workplace with a friendly (versus a sexual) hug. Would a reasonable person consider this to be offensive, unwelcome, hostile or abusive? Probably not so it wouldn’t be judged illegal harassment.

Also considered is the severity and pervasiveness of the offensive behavior. Unless one-time unwelcome behavior is sufficiently severe, it must be pervasive or repetitive to qualify as workplace harassment.

Is the following unwelcome behavior severe or frequent enough to be considered harassment?
§ Arthur got drunk at a professional social gathering and made a pass at Tanya. The next day he apologized to her. He told her he was very embarrassed that he got so drunk and that his behavior was so disrespectful. From then on, he treats her courteously and respectfully.

Arthurs’s behavior probably isn’t enough to qualify as harassment unless he repeats it.

Intent vs. impact: Finally, the law doesn’t care about the “harasser’s” intent but rather the impact his/her behavior has on the target and his/her workplace. Regardless of intent, the behavior will be judged on its impact upon the work environment. “I didn’t mean anything by it” isn’t a valid defense.

Be forewarned and think before you act.

Next week we’ll look at bullying, which is pervasive but not covered under anti-harassment legislation, and sexual harassment.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Know meaning of harassment in your working environment
Stress for Success
July 22, 2008

One person’s joke is another’s insult. Where I see harassment you see teasing. So where’s the line between legal and illegal workplace behavior?

It’s difficult to know because much harassment is in the mind of the beholder, putting organizations at risk in our litigious society. What your employees don’t know can hurt you so it pays to educate them to know where that line is, especially during heightened stress when complaints of harassment increase.

The world renowned anthropologist, Margaret Meade, best explained the confusion over what constitutes illegal harassment. She found that in all societies she studied that experienced significant social change each created new taboos to discourage once acceptable behaviors. And who could argue that America hasn’t experienced huge social changes in recent decades? We prohibited newly determined unacceptable behaviors into anti-discrimination laws.

But what is harassment?

The dictionary definition is "to disturb, torment or pester on a persistent basis." By this definition, we’ve probably all harassed someone (just ask younger siblings). If you’re truly joking in a good natured way and someone who’s offended asks you to stop, you’ll likely stop because your aim isn’t to disturb. Those who continue intend to harass.

To clarify what illegal harassment is let’s break down the law, which states:
Unwelcome or unsolicited speech or conduct based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, age, color or handicap that creates a hostile work environment or circumstances involving quid pro quo.

“Speech or conduct” means that what’s offensive must be a behavior versus an attitude or opinion. For example, “she’s creepy” is an opinion not a behavior. Identify specifically what she’s doing behaviorally that you perceive as creepy. Is she staring? Using threatening words? Behavior can be caught on videotape. “Creepy” cannot be but what she’s doing that leads you to label it as creepy can be.

The offensive behavior must also be unwelcome by the target OR by observers! Even if the target of the behavior is comfortable with it you may have customers or others who are offended. This throws the door wide open for complaints!

Requiring that the behavior is unwelcome puts some responsibility on the offended person to tell the “harasser” that his/her behavior is offensive. (The more serious the behavior the less responsibility the law puts on the target to report it. The less serious the behavior the greater is the expectation that the target says something directly to the harasser or to a supervisor.)

For instance, let’s say that you’ve told a racist joke over the telephone. A coworker in an adjacent cubicle overhears you and is offended. The aggrieved would be more expected to directly confront you or report the joke to management. This one incident alone may not be sufficient to qualify as workplace harassment, but once you’re told that the joke was offensive, the next racist joke you tell at work becomes illegal.

Next week I’ll describe other provisions of the law. In the mean time, think before you speak or act. And be aware of who’s around you.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Harassment reports on rise at workplace
Stress for Success
July 15, 2008

Jake (not his real name) realizes that he can be aggressive and overbearing at times. He admirably works at calming himself before interacting with those who easily push his buttons. However, he’s not aware that when he’s stressed he automatically reverts to his natural tendencies -- aggressive behavior. (This is true of everyone.)

HR directors tell me that in times of heightened stress, such as exists today, both those who are likely to harass others are more likely to do so, and those who are more “sensitive” to disagreeable behavior are more likely to perceive it as intentional harassment. This becomes a headache for HR departments because even a verbal complaint about harassment (versus a formal one) can mean many, many hours of investigative work to discern if the objectionable behavior constitutes either workplace or sexual harassment.

Everyone has enough work stress the way it is; we certainly don’t need the additional stress of harassment.

And harassment complaints are increasing. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) fiscal year 2007 data, allegations of discrimination based on race, retaliation, and sex (which includes not only sexual harassment but also, for example, pregnancy discrimination) were the most frequently filed charges (followed by age, disability, country of origin, and religion.) Additionally there were double-digit increases from the prior year (race up 12%, the highest since 1994, retaliation up 18%, the highest since 1992, sex/gender up 7%, the highest since 2002.) These increases may be due to a greater awareness of the law, changing economic conditions (read stress), and increased diversity and demographic shifts in the labor force.

In 2007 the EEOC received 12,510 charges of sexual harassment, 16% of which were filed by males. The vast majority of these were settled and almost $50 million was recovered for those pressing charges (this doesn’t include litigation cases.)

The EEOC also received over 82,000 private-sector job discrimination charges in 2007, the highest number since 2002. They recovered $345 million in monetary relief for job bias victims. The agency also negotiated nonmonetary relief such as employer training (thanks for keeping me busy), policy implementation, reasonable accommodations, and other measures to promote discrimination free workplaces ( Workplace harassment is expensive and stressful.

“Corporate America needs to do a better job of proactively preventing discrimination in addressing complaints promptly and effectively,” said commission chair Naomi C. Earp. “To ensure that equality of opportunity becomes a reality in the 21st century workplace employers need to place a premium on fostering an inclusive and discrimination-free workplace for all individuals.”

I’m often called into workplaces where a harassment complaint has either been expressed or filed or to proactively avoid future problems. Since much harassment is in the eye of the beholder, there’s a lot of confusion about what actually is and is not legal harassment. However, it’s fairly easy to educate employees regarding what is and is not acceptable behavior in today’s workplace.

In following articles I’ll address how to tell if someone’s behavior is “harassment” and what drives true harassment behaviors.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

When change comes, be part of the solution
Stress for Success
July 8, 2008

Job loss among government employees, construction workers, real estate personnel and others due to the real estate slump and Amendment One is creating untold numbers of stressed out families. Losing your livelihood is a hugely stressful change.

And today change happens faster and faster. Just like people anticipating a hurricane, some spend their energy freaking out while others busily go about preparing, so too, do those worried about losing their jobs respond differently. Some responses minimize the problem while others exacerbate it.

It’s perfectly normal to “freak out” over the unknown. There are four emotional stages in reacting to your change you’ll need to move through:
Stage one: emotions from anger to fear, resignation to excitement
You need training, support, to talk with others who’ve experienced the same change, an empathic listener, and an understanding of the “why” of the change.
Stage two: denial
You need greater awareness of the change, to ask questions about it, identify where you can increase your control.
Stage three: overt or covert resistance (more missed deadlines, absenteeism, etc.)
You need conscious awareness of your resistance, of the possibilities of the change and of your options in dealing with them
Stage four: acceptance and adaptation, seeing the opportunities inherent in the change and looking for ways to take advantage of them
You need problem-solving and goal setting

Making a conscious decision to be part of the solution versus part of the problem helps to move through these stages more quickly. Problem-behaviors that perpetuate resistance include:
Excessive blaming and complaining about the changes
Sabotaging those whom you hold responsible
The overt/covert resistance listed above
Customer service slips

Solution-oriented behaviors include:
Avoiding all of the above
Looking for ways to make changes work
Continued exceptional customer service
Being friendly and positive

A technique to move from being a part of the problem to the solution is found in Mark Sanborn’s “Mastering Change” videos. He uses the Chinese idiogram for “crisis,” which has two symbols, one for danger and one for opportunity. Regarding your change, identify the potential dangers and opportunities of it. Then develop a strategy to avoid those dangers and to take advantage of the opportunities.

For example, if three of 10 people in your office will lose their jobs the dangers include:
You’ll lose your job.
Strategy: update your resume, network more in the community, do Internet job searches, consider another career, get additional education, cut your spending, etc.

A possible opportunity:
Make yourself so valuable you’d be the last to be laid off
Strategy: be easy to work with, identify job priorities and offer suggestions regarding what could be left undone and how to streamline what’s left, identify gaps in service due to layoffs and propose ways to close them, etc.

To cope better with your change put your energy into problem-solving versus problem-perpetuating. It’ll lower your stress and get you through these difficult times better.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Stress for Success
July 1, 2008, Week 216
July 1, 2008

Freedom means different things to different people

Does living with relative political freedom reduce our stress?

Since the perception of control in one’s life reduces overall stress, it stands to reason that living in a country with great freedoms (control) would lessen stress, too.

For example, unlike some countries, we have the freedom to move to any city whenever we wish. Imagine if you couldn’t find work where you lived and your government wouldn’t allow you to move to another more economically promising area. This could lead to the opposite of control – helplessness, which is far more stressful. So, those who’ve lost jobs recently can at least exercise control by relocating.

For every freedom there’s also a corresponding responsibility. If you’re not willing to take responsibility for your choices then freedom can be very taxing.

Staying with the above example of moving to find employment, it would be your responsibility to do research before packing up your family for parts unknown. What are employment prospects in this new location? Is the housing affordable? What about schools for your kids? There are many questions needing answers to support a responsible choice. Those who do their due diligence would likely make a better decision thus have less stress. Those who don’t could add more anxiety to their families even though they are exercising greater control. (FYI: research places to move at http://www.who, “place finder”.)

For each freedom and its corresponding responsibility there are, of course, consequences, positive or negative. The person who does thorough research before moving to a new area is likely to experience a better outcome (consequence) than one who plows ahead without thought and ends up in an unfriendly work environment once again.

So political freedom should reduce all societies’ stress, right? Not necessarily.

There are cultures in this world, it’s argued, that aren’t ready for significant autonomy because they’ve lived most of their history without it. Some say that Russia is such a country since its masses were serfs before the communists took over. Perhaps this explains why the Russian people hold former President Vladimir Putin in such high regard, even though he diminished rights so recently won. It seems some populations prefer a more authoritarian government.

So freedom is defined differently by different people. Who’s to say one size should fit all?

This week we celebrate our version of freedom. Personally, I’d have our liberty no other way. I’m happy to have greater control over my life and very willing to accept the responsibilities of my choices and their consequences. Freedom from (too much) government interference makes us Americans, I believe, stronger and able to cope better with the massive changes taking place around us, like economic downturns. It may be difficult but we seem to recover more quickly from financial dislocation than even our European counterparts, who are more subsidized (more controlled?) by their governments through higher taxes.

So enjoy this July 4 weekend. Exercise your freedom -- or not, enjoy what it represents -- or not, overindulge -- or not. It’s your choice. Isn’t it great?

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.