Only Harassment Impact (Not Intention) is Actionable in Business and at Work


I started conducting Harassment Prevention and Awareness Training at the very beginning of my HR career over 25 years ago, and I continue to conduct it (more frequently based on recent developments in the greater culture lately) for leaders, employers and employees in all sectors and in all workplaces, large and small.

Often (but not always), one of the more difficult concepts for training participants to grasp is the “intent vs. impact” guideline. A common example that I use during training is complimenting a women on her blouse while you’re talking to (e.g., your gaze is focused on) her breasts; or the gender-neutral example of complimenting a co-worker on their pants while your eyes are clearly checking out their rear end. Subsequent counseling conversations with those distributing such compliments usually involves “I was just complimenting their clothing, I didn’t intend any harm.”

In ensuring harassment intervention and prevention in the workplace, the very clear guidance is that all we can take action on is the impact on the person harmed by the often-uncomfortable impact of that compliment – the intention is frankly irrelevant. It is the responsibility of all of us to clearly understand where the compliance (and workplace etiquette) boundaries are, and how to avoid them – and help our coworkers to do the same.

Simply put:  we humans are not psychic – we can not definitively discern and concretely establish intent. All we can do is address what we observe with the commonly accepted human senses – the impact on the person harmed by the action.

How do you ensure that employees and managers in your organization understand the intent vs. impact of harassment, business and at work?

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