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Sexual harassment at the workplace needs to be addressed, says psychologist

Targets need to be validated, and instigators need to be held to account, says CBC's workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman

Targets need to be validated, and instigators need to be held to account, says Jennifer Newman

It's up to managers and supervisors to curb bullying and sexual harrassment in the workplace, psychologist Jennifer Newman says. (Getty Images)

Bullying and sexual harassment plague workplaces and require action by employers — but they can be extremely difficult to talk about, according to workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

"It can be quite common, and on a spectrum — all the way from incivility and shunning people... to physical assault," said Newman. "It's something we really need to continue focusing on."

She joined host Rick Cluff on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition to talk about what happens to targets — and how they can begin to heal.

Rick Cluff: What are common psychological reactions to being bullied or harassed at work?

Jennifer Newman: Disbelief, is one.

At first, many have trouble believing it's happening to them. Workers can go for a long time trying to find solutions to the problem. They might try, at first to downplay the situation because they don't want this to be happening.

When it continues, they may try talking with the instigator, hoping a collegial conversation should settle things. If the situation isn't abusive this usually fixes things — there's an apology and things change.

If the worker is a target of workplace abuse, things don't change — they often get worse.

As things worsen, what happens to targets?

At this point, nothing seems to be working. It's like quick sand — the more a targeted worker tries to find solutions, the worse things seem to get.

It seems pretty insidious, once self-doubt starts taking over what happens to targets, psychologically?


And at this point things get really bad. Targets start blaming themselves for something they can't control and don't deserve.

And, that's the point of workplace abuse — the purpose is to knock targets off balance, shake their equilibrium and disorient them to the point they don't know which way is up.

Jennifer Newman is a workplace psychologist and regular on CBC's The Early Edition. (Jennifer Newman)

Targets can experience a state of extreme impotence or profound powerlessness. They are completely unable to exert influence over their situation, to change things for the positive. Everything is turned upside down, and this gets turned inward.

Powerless and blocked at every turn, targets start to self-blame. They ask themselves: "What did I do to bring this on?" They begin to take on responsibility for their abuse at work.

It's a desperate way of trying to take back control — workers feel robbed of their dignity. They describe it as soul destroying.

What can help workers heal when things have gotten this far?

Targets of humiliation, intimidation and abuse at work long for validation and acknowledgement — that this really did happen, or is happening. That it is real, that others see what's happening to them is wrong, that it's undeserved, and someone will help make it stop.

The instigator is the one who owns the responsibility for the abuse, not the target.

And the instigators and those who enable their behaviour are the problem, — not the target for trying to fix things.

A sincere apology helps.  But, it can be too little, too late at a certain point. What's needed is to see change.

From a psychological point of view this can mean having an employer validate what happened to an abused worker as actually having happened and acknowledge it is terribly wrong, that it should never have happened in the first place.

Employers should actively deal with instigators.

It seems like most of the time, targets don't get acknowledgement, validation or see change? How can they recover from this kind of abuse without that?

It's hard. The problem is when a worker has been targeted the very thing that will help them heal, is out of their control. They can't get validation from employers, managers, HR, their union, or the instigators themselves. And, the target has no way of influencing any of these to provide validation, acknowledgement or create change.

In fact, they may be re-injured psychologically by interactions with these entities.

To heal means recovering one's dignity, and it's very individual. That might mean deciding to speak-out regardless of the outcome, fighting back by retaining a lawyer, or, making a lateral move and getting away from the instigators.

For others, it's negotiating a good severance and finding a better job.

These are all forms of self-validation — targets feel they've stood their ground.

But, a way many targets would like to start to heal, is to see and hear, from those in charge:

"It was wrong what happened to you; it should never have happened; no one deserves that kind of treatment, it will never happen again and the person or people who did this to you won't get away with it."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled:  Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman discusses sexual harassment in the workplace