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HERd Management: Know the boundaries

Jayne Sebright for Progressive Dairy Published on 17 January 2020

When I was 19, a guy about my age was hired to work on our farm. He was a good worker and took to the job well. So most of my family thought he was a great guy.

However, he made me feel very uncomfortable with inappropriate comments he made when we were alone and jibes in public about how I was the little wife and my parents were “Mom” and “Dad.” About 10 years later, that same individual was sent to prison for indecent contact with teenage girls. I wondered then if me speaking up years earlier would have remedied a bad behavior before it became something worse.

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A few people’s bad behavior has heightened our society’s concern in this area, and now it is very hard to distinguish between harmless workplace banter and something to be taken more seriously. The reality is that harassment can happen, even in our industry and even on the best of farms. It’s not always sexual in nature either. It could be one employee bullying another or even a supervisor inappropriately reprimanding a subordinate.

Harassment is defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as any unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Recently, the state of New York enacted a law requiring all employers to provide harassment training within the workplace. I had the opportunity to attend a recent board meeting for a dairy organization based in Syracuse and participated in the training they held for their board. It opened my eyes to what we should be doing, both as employers and as individuals, to prevent harassment from happening in our communities and especially on our farms.

Address it immediately

As employers, it’s important to understand our role in preventing harassment in the workplace. There are a variety of scenarios where harassment might occur: off-color jokes somebody finds offensive, a friendly hug that is unwelcomed or a reprimand someone views unfair. The challenge for employers is to know what to do when you see it happening. If you ignore it, you could be viewed as encouraging it and could be held liable if the alleged victim decides to take action.

At the training, they suggested the first step is to address the situation head-on by bringing the two people involved together to discuss it. Sometimes an apology or acknowledgement that the situation was inappropriate may be enough to satisfy the person with the complaint. Other times, it may be something more serious. The trainer suggested the employer should validate the person’s concerns first by listening to him or her and asking what the person would like to see happen. In some cases, what the person wants may not be something you’re willing to do. In other cases, it may be necessary to remedy the situation.

Having a policy in place and conducting employee trainings about acceptable and unacceptable behavior can also help. Sometimes companies show videos describing different forms of harassment and, if possible, provide scenarios to further explain what happens when unwelcome conduct becomes harassment. Employees are asked to review the videos when they are promoted to ensure they understand the boundaries. Guidelines on how to report harassment are often also included in the policy.

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Know your audience

The biggest challenge is that harassment is defined by the victim, and it means something different to everyone. The trainer spoke about how, in a group of 10 people, one person may view something as offensive while everyone else may be comfortable with it. That doesn’t make it any less serious if that person files a harassment charge.

I like to think we have an almost family-like culture within our dairy community, and this brings a level of comfort that isn’t commonplace in other industries. But it is important to always be cognizant of your audience and make sure you consider how they are going to react before you do anything that could be taken out of context.

THINK before you act

The last thing the trainer said that resonated with me was her suggestion that we should all think more before we act. She used the word THINK as an acronym for the following questions to ask yourself before you say or do anything to someone else:

T – Is it truthful?

H – Is it helpful?

I – Is it inspiring?

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N – Is it necessary?

K – Is it kind?

Sometimes reminding your employees, and even yourself, to stop and think about how something will be perceived could prevent a situation from occurring. While not everything we say or do can be inspiring, it should always be truthful and done with integrity. We should also be sure what we are saying or doing is helpful and will in no way be viewed as hurtful. And, if something isn’t necessary, then maybe we shouldn’t be doing or saying it at all.

The last letter in the acronym is something desperately needed in our society today. Probably the best advice I ever received is to remember everyone experiences challenges and you cannot possibly know how the other person is feeling. That is why it is always important to treat others with kindness and respect. To me, that’s probably the best way to keep harassment at bay.  end mark

Jayne Sebright
  • Jayne Sebright

  • Executive Director
  • Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence
  • Email Jayne Sebright

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