Manager: How to prevent sexual harassment, offensive behaviour and bullying

As a manager, you must be able to handle conflicts and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. But how can you ensure that a conflict is de-escalated, resolved and everyone feels heard, seen and respected?

What should I, as a manager, be aware of regarding violations and the work environment?

As a manager, the psychosocial work environment is your responsibility. It is you who must take responsibility for ensuring that the workplace is set up so that as few as possible experience offensive acts, sexual harassment and bullying.

There are several things that you, as a manager should keep an eye on:

  • Transgressive behaviour in workplaces is about more than a hand on a thigh. Typical examples include individuals ignoring or avoiding colleagues or making negative comments disguised as office humour – as well as other seemingly harmless forms of behaviour.
  • Boundary violations don't have to be personal or sexual. They can be professional and, for example, about the quality or pace of someone’s work or the professional qualifications a person has. Be aware that it is you as manager who decides on the division of tasks.
  • Silence is a danger signal that can be more alarming than unpleasant comments. Research shows that people who are met with silence have a greater risk of getting ill than if they are met with offensive comments.
  • Humour can be extraordinarily difficult speak up against. If an employee points out that an offensive joke makes them uncomfortable, it can easily be dismissed as a lack of humour. So pay special attention to jokes.

How do I as a manager create a safe work environment where we can talk about violations?

Violations, sexual harassment and bullying rarely occur because one employee has a conscious intention to cross the line. Instead, it is usually a symptom of a poor psychosocial work environment.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to create the conditions for a working environment that is both safe and healthy for your employees to work in.

Most cases of abusive behaviour do not come to light because the exposed employee is worried about how it will be received. It is the manager's responsibility to establish a culture that encourages employees to speak up if they are subjected to offensive actions, bullying or sexual harassment.  

It is important that employees know exactly what will happen if they speak up, who they can safely turn to, and that talking about violations will not have negative consequences for them. You as a manager can, for example:  

  • make sure to regularly inform about the topic at staff meetings 
  • describe the procedure for abusive actions in the staff handbook 
  • share the procedure for handling abusive actions on your internal communications platform
  • make the subject an integral part of the workplace assessment

Talk openly about boundaries and offensive acts

It is essential that you can talk openly and honestly about where the employees' boundaries lie. It is a good idea to plan when these conversations will take place. You can, for example:   

  • talk to employees about boundaries at a 1 to 1 interview 
  • discuss how boundaries differ at a department meeting, for example every six months. 

When you have these conversations, it is important that you as a manager remember:

  • Boundaries are often in grey areas, where much depends on context, relationships and power asymmetry.
  • There are boundaries that can be negotiated or moved without further ado, and there are boundaries that must not be overstepped. But it is individual from employee to employee where the boundaries are.
  • Regardless, the rules are clear enough: It is irrelevant whether the actions are an expression of carelessness or a determined desire to violate. It is the person's experience of the offending actions that is central.

When is something a violation, sexual harassment and bullying?

What do I do as a manager if an employee tells me that they are being violated?

First of all: Telling your manager that you have experienced a violation is not an easy conversation to have.

If an employee approaches you because they have been subjected to an offensive act, it is crucial that you:

  • Remember that it took courage and trust to contact you. It may have taken several sleepless nights to gather the courage.  
  • Always takes the inquiry seriously. Regardless of whether you can understand the employee reacting the way he/she does or not, you should acknowledge that the employee experienced the incident as offensive. Avoid explaining away, apologising or belittling the situation, and avoid giving good advice during your first conversation.
  • Make a clear agreement with the employee about what happens next. Explain to them what is confidential, who you may need to talk to and what happens from here. Make a clear agreement that you will return and when.
  • Follow up. When you have taken the necessary measures, it is important that you tell the employee what has happened and how it will be followed up in the future, including conversations with the person(s) who engaged in the offending behaviour.
  • It is important that you follow up. Better one time too many than once too little.

How should I, as a manager, handle a conversation with an employee who has engaged in offensive behaviour?

If you have not held a difficult interview with an employee before, or have not attended a course on such interviews, IDA recommends that you do not just rush into it. If you have an HR department , get help from there , seek advice from an experienced manager or contact IDA.

As a starting point, avoid thinking of it as a "case" that may have employment law consequences before you have formed an overview of what has actually happened, and perhaps have spoken to the parties a few times. In addition, always remember that:

  • Cases involving serious conflicts and abusive actions can be complex. So there is no quick fix.
  • More often than not, several measures are needed over a longer period of time.
  • Strongly consider seeking help from outside counsel.
  • If the case requires that legal steps have to be taken - warnings, dismissals - then work must still be done with regards to the employees who have been exposed to the offending act and those who have witnessed it.

As a manager, where can I get help if we experience offensive behaviour in the workplace?

As a manager, you may not necessarily have the skills needed to handle all kinds of work environment challenges.  

There may be personnel conflicts where you cannot mediate in the conflict because you are involved. There may also be questions related to, for example, LGBT+ or neurodivergent employees, where you do not necessarily have the prerequisites to help.  

IDA therefore recommends that you ask for help from an impartial, external party if you have doubts about your neutrality or ability. This could be, for example, a professional conflict mediator, working environment advisor or the company's HR department.   

It is your responsibility as personnel manager to handle conflicts so that they do not run wild and create a bad psychosocial working environment.

Contact the Danish Occupational Safety and Health Administration's hotline on abusive acts,

The Danish Working Environment Authority's list of authorised occupational health and safety advisers, (In Danish)

Log in and contact IDA for sparring or a referral

Remember to update your workplace assessment (APV)

If potential issues have been identified with the working environment, e.g. due to abusive actions, planned and implemented measures must be entered in the workplace risk assessment (APV), which must be available to managers, employees and the Danish Working Environment Authority

Workplace assessment (APV): Here are the rules