Building Relationships at Work

Building Relationships at Work


American workers spend, on average, one-third of their life at their place of employment. For some, the workplace is an engaging, stimulating and enjoyable environment. Others aren’t so fortunate. Job satisfaction and overall happiness depend heavily upon the relationships built at work. At a minimum co-worker should treat one another with mutual respect. However, research shows that if you are lucky enough to have one or more good friends among your work colleagues, you are far more likely to be happy. 

Unfortunately, establishing positive relationships in the workplace is not always so easy. When an employee can no longer complete job tasks due to harassment or inappropriate behavior from others, the work environment is said to be “hostile.” 

Toxic work relationships harm all employees by encouraging unacceptable behavior in the harasser and causing a range of negative consequences for the employee being harassed including increased stress, fear, loss of respect and harm to future career prospects. For other employees, a toxic work environment causes low morale, high turnover, low job satisfaction and a decline in productivity. No worker should have to work in an environment where they feel as if they are under attack. It is extremely important that all employees understand the qualities of a good professional relationship, are able to identify different types of harassment and know how to properly deal with it when it arises.

Developing Positive Relationships at Work

One of the determining factors of your career-long happiness and success is your ability to create and nurture positive relationships with coworkers. When you have good relationships at work, you will be able to better express your ideas, get things done and your work will feel more fulfilling. 

What Does a Good Work Relationship Entail?

Just like good personal relationships, positive work relationships involve mutual effort and good faith interaction. Work on the following attitudes and behaviors: 

  • Respect – Feel and express value for other people’s ideas and work together to come up with solutions and work products with everybody’s input. Refrain from making judgements about them based on anything other than their behavior and treat them with human dignity. Encourage others to respect you by being responsible, attentive, caring and direct.
  • Trust – Observe others to see if they do what they say, are consistent and act with integrity. If they do, they can be trusted. Resolve to act in the same manner so that others will trust you.
  • Self-awareness – If another person acknowledges when they make a mistake and takes steps to fix it without being told to do so, they have self-awareness. Practice this trait by examining your own words, actions and inactions and the effect they have on those around you. If you determine that you did something wrong, apologize, try to fix the situation and decide to not make the same mistake again.
  • Inclusion – Don’t just hang out with people who are similar to you in background or outlook. Seek out relationships with coworkers who have different perspectives to offer and work to make them feel as if they are part of the group, not outsiders. If you feel like you are not part of the “in group,” make an effort to join with others to give them the opportunity to include you.
  • Open communication – Communicate with coworkers regularly, whether it is in formal meetings, via email or at an after-work happy hour. Try to keep your communication clear, warm and polite. When coworkers communicate with you, respond thoughtfully, respectfully and without judgment. If a coworker asks you for something you are not able or willing to do, explaining your reasons will foster understanding and soften the refusal. 

How to Build Good Work Relationships

There are a few essential steps that all employees must take when first developing relationships in their work environment. Continue reading below to see whether you meet the criteria for creating positive relationships in your workplace. 

Reject the “I” Mentality

When you are at work, you are still an individual but you are also part of a larger team. Although of course, you want your accomplishments to be recognized and rewarded, you should keep in mind that because everyone has a shared purpose, you are no more important than your co-worker down the hall. Even if your job title gives you authority over the members of your team or department, endeavor to treat all your colleagues with respect; this will create a more harmonious and productive workplace for everyone. This is a win-win since your more productive team is sure to get noticed by upper management.

If you are too focused on your own ambition and your individual skills, this attitude will only isolate you from the larger group. To foster positive relationships, your co-workers need to know they can trust that you’ll be a helpful team player. Take the time to ask others for their input and advice on a project you’re working on, even if you feel that it’s already perfect. Invite them to help you meet a tight deadline. The more you incorporate others at work, the better your chances of building meaningful relationships. When you build goodwill within your workplace, you will not only find work more enjoyable but when it comes time for a promotion, you will have allies who will speak up on your behalf.

Brush up on Your People Skills

No matter the occupational field in which you work, you will need to have a solid set of people skills to develop positive relationships. The collective term “people skills” refers to a number of qualities that foster communication and invite discussion. Practice these skills: 

  • Active listening – This is  being really attentive when another person is talking, without simultaneously thinking about the next thing that you will say. Think about what the other person has said and respond by asking questions or offering a thoughtful or helpful comment. Examine the other person’s body language and tone of voice to understand the subtext of what they are communicating.
  • Empathy – Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a key relationship-building ability. Try to relate to others and see things from their perspective. When appropriate, offer support, sympathy and feedback both verbally and with body language.
  • Flexibility – Being able and willing to see things differently, deal with schedule changes and other “curve balls” and find new solutions to complex problems will serve you well on a personal and a professional level.
  • Humor – The best-loved people in any environment usually have a great sense of humor. While you don’t need to come to work with a joke book, be able to recognize and point out the absurdity or irony in different situations.
  • Willingness to work as a team – This involves sometimes biting your tongue when you have something nasty to say to others on your team, the ability to cede some control to others and diligently doing your part in a group effort.
  • Good manners – While you may not have gone to finishing school, it is important to always act in a courteous manner. If you are not sure how to act, act like you would like someone to act toward you. Being polite means being considerate of other people.

Without these skills, it will be difficult to show coworkers that you are devoted to creating meaningful workplace relationships. If people skills are not your strong point, putting in the effort to polish them up will produce huge dividends.

Eliminate Gossip

One of the most detrimental factors to the development of workplace relationships is gossip. As harmless as it may seem, talking about a coworker (or boss) behind his or her back is never a good idea, as it has a way of coming back to haunt you. Whether you’re in a small office or part of a larger workforce, word spreads quickly, so workplace gossip should be avoided at all costs. 

When a conflict arises, confront the other person instead of letting it linger or complaining to others about it.  If you become known for office gossip, coworkers may not trust you in the future. It is also a good idea to not get involved when your coworkers are gossiping. Try to stay neutral and advise the gossiper to resolve the situation through the proper channels.

Know Your Boundaries

Everyone is different, which means that everyone has a different idea of what a positive workplace relationship looks like. For you, it might take the shape of lunching together in the common room or having a drink together after your shift. For others, it might be limited to a polite greeting in the morning and bidding farewell at the end of the day. It is important to get to know your colleagues and understand their wishes for your relationship. Overstepping boundaries could lead to mistrust and a toxic relationship down the road. Listen not only to the words colleagues are saying to you, but also their facial expressions and body language to know when it is not a good time to talk and how friendly they want to be with you.

Respect Space

Like relationship boundaries, you must understand and respect your colleagues’ space. When you invade a coworker’s space, it communicates disrespect or even aggression. This includes their personal space, office area and workspace. You cannot demand respect from someone who does not feel respected. You can ensure mutual respect by doing the little things, like knocking before entering colleagues’ offices, not touching or moving their personal belongings and not intruding on their personal space. Never touch a coworker without permission.

How to Navigate Difficult Work Relationships

We’ve all had to deal with difficult people at work, whether it’s the cranky boss, the unreasonable customer or the annoying coworker. The more people you interact with on a daily basis, the more likely it is that you will encounter someone who has a unique ability to make you stressed, upset or frustrated. Since it is usually impossible to avoid them, use these tactics to deal with them in a healthy way.

Be Calm

Nobody reacts well to being yelled at or told off. When you act calm and reasonable, you may be able to calm the situation down since people unconsciously mirror the emotions of others. An unruffled approach lets you take the high road, look like a professional and in many cases, accomplish your goals. 

Get to the Bottom of It

When someone is acting difficult with you, there is usually a reason although it may not be immediately apparent. Think about why this person is acting like this and how you can meet his or her needs to resolve the situation. In the case of a customer who is complaining, many times, they just want to be heard and sympathized with. Even if you cannot resolve the specific issue, offering a workaround and a sympathetic ear can do wonders. When a boss is yelling at you or pressuring you, reassuring her that the work will be done on time and well can calm frayed nerves.

Get Some Perspective

When you are in the middle of a stressful interaction, it is hard to see the big picture. Talk to colleagues (making sure not to gossip or insult the difficult person), friends and family members. Someone you talk to may have gone through a similar situation and could share a fresh take on it or words of advice.

Share Your Perspective

When you are asking another person to do something, whether a peer or someone you supervise, it can be helpful to share the reasons behind your request. When they understand what is needed, it makes it less personal and easier for them to get on board. 

Treat Others with Respect

Refrain from insulting others, in words or through sarcasm or contempt. This is a surefire way to prevent people from cooperating with you. 

Focus on the Present and Future

If a colleague has made a mistake, focus on the now. What can be done now, given that the mistake has already happened? By dwelling on the past, you will make yourself and others miserable, and nothing can be done to undo what has been done.

Ignore When Feasible

There are some people you will never get along with. Where possible, avoid interacting with those individuals. If it is a customer, you have the option of referring them to your supervisor to handle thorny issues. If it is a boss, think about asking for a lateral transfer to get into a different department or division.

Report When Necessary

If someone you work with is constantly harassing you, you do not have to put up with that kind of behavior. Many types of harassment are illegal, and others are contrary to workplace policy since they interfere with company morale and productivity. See “Steps for Reporting Harassment” on page X of this guide. 

Identifying Different Types of Workplace Harassment

Unfortunately, work settings are some of the most common environments for harassment to occur. It can be difficult trying to pinpoint harassment at work, as it takes many shapes and forms and often presents itself subtly. It is crucial that employees, managers and executives do their very best to identify workplace harassment when it happens and initiate the consequences to ensure it does not persist. To learn about the most common forms of harassment in the workplace and understand how to identify them, continue reading below.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is one of the most common types of harassment displayed in the workplace. By definition, sexual harassment comprises any unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate requests for sexual favors, coercion of a sexual nature and other sexually-charged comments or behavior. It also includes making derogatory comments about another person’s sex, such as making disparaging comments about women in general, regardless of the sex of the offender. In order to be considered to be sexual harassment, it must be both unwelcome and ongoing. 

Sexual harassment of any kind is illegal and punishable by law. The serious nature of this offense permits law enforcement agencies to investigate any allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment can be verbal, physical or both. Whether explicit or implicit, those who are guilty of sexual harassment must be held accountable, for ongoing harassment of any kind inhibits an employee’s ability to perform his or her job. Some examples of sexual harassment may be obvious, such as unsolicited physical touching. Others may be subtle or even implied, like comments about an employee’s body or inappropriate eye contact. Recognizing sexual harassment can be difficult, but it is extremely important for all employees to understand the importance of reporting this behavior to higher authorities.

Is It OK to Date at Work?

Despite many companies’ policies prohibiting dating work colleagues, it happens all the time. In fact, 38% of people surveyed by CareerBuilder said that they had dated a coworker at some point and meeting someone at work is the number one way that people meet their spouses. Nevertheless, it is a risky business. 

The reasons that companies frown on office romances include:

  • Actual or perceived favoritism if between a manager and subordinate
  • Possibility of a sexual harassment complaint if the relationship ends badly
  • Interference with work performance  

Read your company’s employee handbook and/or your employment agreement to find out how your workplace views dating other employees. Some businesses prohibit all dating of employees, while others only prohibit relationships between a manager and subordinate. In some companies, dating is allowed if disclosure and consent are given by both parties in writing. A company can legally fire you if you violate its policies, even if there is no demonstrable harm to the company.

If you do end up dating someone from work and the relationship ends, avoid bad-mouthing, stalking or harassing your ex, especially at work.

Verbal Harassment

This is a rather broad type of harassment, as it encompasses several different categories. Verbal harassment is exhibited through inappropriate words, comments, remarks, laughs and jokes. The harassment can be aimed at an employee based on his or her race, religion, ethnicity, physical appearance, gender and other characteristics. It is against the law to discriminate against someone on the basis of one of these characteristics. 

Sometimes, when confronted, a harasser will characterize his behavior as sarcasm or humor. However, it is crucial that employees recognize this harmful behavior and terminate it. For example, someone who makes continuous harmful comments about an employee’s weight is engaging in verbal harassment. This type of harassment can also turn violent, as some may use threats to intimidate others into taking some action These threats may be subtle, like using menacing language to coerce an employee into covering a shift or belittling him or her in front of the rest of the staff. They can also be outwardly obvious, like direct threats about an employee’s termination, physical harm or even his or her life.

Physical Harassment

When an employee uses his or her body in an inappropriate or menacing manner, he or she is exhibiting signs of physical harassment. It is most commonly seen in the form of sexual harassment with inappropriate touching, distasteful body language and unwanted physical contact in a sexual manner. Physical harassment also comprises harassment based on race, religion or ethnicity. For example, touching, grabbing or removing another employee’s religious headdress is discriminatory physical harassment. Poking someone’s body while making cruel jokes about his or her size is another example. Physical harassment can also include entering an employee’s personal space without permission, taking his or her belongings and interfering with his or her work duties. 

Racial, Ethnic and Religious Harassment

Continuous references to an individual’s country of origin is not only unnecessary but inappropriate. A boss, colleague or client has no reason to discuss an employee’s ethnic background during the workday. Race and ethnicity do not correlate with job performance; constantly mentioning these characteristics can only be construed as derogatory and discriminatory. References to an employee’s physical appearance based on his or her religion is also illegal. Using racial, ethnic or religious stereotypes to comment on an employee’s productivity is also considered discriminatory behavior and is grounds for the employee to file a harassment claim. 

An employee’s race, ethnicity or religion has nothing to do with his or her ability to complete the job, and should not be discussed in a workplace setting unless it has a direct bearing on work-related activities. For example, if an employee is a religiously observant Jew, it would be inappropriate to schedule that person to work on a Saturday.

Handling a Hostile Work Environment

To do their job accurately and efficiently, employees must work in a setting that fosters creativity and growth. A workplace can become hostile for many reasons; these environments are created by bosses, supervisors or other workers who inhibit the comfort and safety of all employees. Their actions, words or attitudes contribute to an overall negative atmosphere, which can have a detrimental effect on the employees subjected to it. 

What Constitutes Workplace Harassment?

Not every off-color joke or comment rises to the level of harassment. Here are the legal criteria, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In order to be considered to be harassment, the conduct must be all of the following:

  1. Unwelcome – If the employee considers the conduct to be good natured teasing or flirting, then it is not harassment
  2. Based on the victim’s protected status – The conduct relates to one or more of the following: 
    • Race
    • Sex, including sexual orientation and characteristics that relate to an employee’s sex such as pregnancy
    • Ethnicity
    • Disability
    • Age (over age 40)
    • Genetic information
  3. Subjectively abusive – The victim feels abused, not just annoyed by the conduct
  4. Severe and pervasive – The conduct creates a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive over time

Employees may feel they are powerless when it comes to changing the tone of their work environment. On the contrary, it is precisely their actions that will bring the hostility to an end. There are many things that employees can do to hold those responsible for promoting a hostile work environment. There are state and federal laws that can punish individuals who use negativity, discrimination or violence to intimidate employees and create a hostile workplace. Here are some important steps you can follow to take back your work environment. 

Avoid Becoming Emotional

It can be extremely tempting to respond negatively toward a hostile employee or environment. However, it is important to remain professional throughout the situation. Becoming overly emotional in your reaction can be detrimental to the outcome of your report and can shift the critical focus from the offender to you. Upper management and the human resources department will not tolerate being yelled at; besides, your anger is most likely directed at the offender, not the company. As frustrated as you may feel, if the solution is not up to your expectations, refrain from letting your emotions get the best of you. The best thing you can do to resolve the situation on your own is to remain calm, reasonable and professional at all times. 

Address the Problem

Too often, employees allow an issue to persist for a variety of reasons. They may be afraid that reporting the issue will lead to losing their job or they might not be confident that saying something will stop the abusive behavior. However, there are protections and processes in place to deal with this sort of issue, both internally as company policy and externally in the form of laws. As soon as a conflict arises, it’s important to confront it so it can stop.

An individual who begins using profanity when addressing certain employees must be told that this is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. If it goes unpunished, the offender will feel it is acceptable and will continue addressing employees offensively. Do not be intimidated by the offender; the law is on your side. As long as you have evidence to back up your claim, the offender will be required to stop his or her rude behavior or face further consequences. The best thing you can do to prevent a workplace from becoming hostile is to address the problem before it persists. Sometimes, the offender may not even realize that his or her actions are contributing to a negative work environment. When confronted, he or she might feel embarrassed about the incident and self-correct by terminating the behavior. This is ideal, as you will not spend a majority of the workday in and out of a corporate office filling out paperwork about the behavior.

Compile the Evidence

Before you file a formal complaint about one or more individuals in your workplace, you need to collect evidence that the incident is a continuous problem. Isolated issues will not hold up during an investigation. There must be well-documented evidence of a persisting problem with the date of each infraction and proof that you attempted to resolve the situation before it escalated. It may also help to have witnesses corroborate your story, especially if the incident affected more than just you. Record every conversation you hold with the offender and include details about his or her reaction. Keep these records safe somewhere away from the office in the event you need to present them during an investigation. 

Report the Incident

If confronting the offender on your own does not resolve the issue, it’s time to report it to upper management. Most companies have a human resources department dedicated to resolving employee conflicts. If your workplace does not have this department, report it to the highest authority. In cases where the offender is a member of management, you may feel you cannot confront him or her directly without facing consequences on your own behalf. This is when making your report through the human resources department is a good strategy.

If you have witnessed harassment at work but have not been a target yourself, it is still important to report it. Your report will corroborate the victim’s report and will contribute to making your place of employment more inclusive and less toxic.

Procedures for Reporting Harassment at Work

When a case of workplace harassment occurs, it is extremely important that all employees witnessing the incident follow proper reporting procedures. Harassment in the workplace is illegal and must be confronted in a timely manner. If the offender is investigated by the employer in the future, proper penalties will only be inflicted if the incident was accurately reported. It may be difficult for some employees to find the courage to speak out against workplace harassment. Many fear that their actions will cause them to face consequences or retaliation from the offender, employer or upper management. However, employees can take comfort in knowing that there are certain laws in place protecting those who report incidents of harassment in the workplace and encouraging all employees to confront these conflicts. To report workplace harassment, follow these steps: 

1. Document what happened – Record every detail of each incident including person involved, date, what happened and the names of any witnesses.

When the harassment first begins, many employees may not think to document the evidence because it could be construed as a “one-time thing.” However, as soon as the issue continues, employees should begin recording the details. The following is an example of a case of sexual harassment in the workplace and the proper documentation procedure.

Jane Doe works in an office setting. She has been experiencing sexual harassment from John, a co-worker and admirer. The harassment began as an inquiry for an after-work date and has persisted for approximately one month, despite her requests for it to stop. Jane has decided to report the incident to her company’s human resources department. She creates an email with the subject line “Formal Letter of Complaint,” which she sends to both the human resources department and her direct supervisor. In it, she documents every detail of the allegation, including the date, time and any possible witnesses. Here is an excerpt: 

Dear [human resources department and supervisor]:

I hereby inform you that John has been sexually harassing me. The events of the harassment are listed as follows:

  • Last month, I received a letter from John asking me to accompany him on a date. I respectfully declined. A copy of this letter is attached.
  • On November 3, John asked me on a date again. I declined again, and told Heather about it the next day.
  • On November 7, John sent me a text message expressing his interest in dating me and used inappropriate language. A copy of this message is attached.
  • On November 8, John approached me from behind and embraced me. I told him to stop. Heather and William observed this incident.
  • On November 10, I asked my supervisor to move my desk away from John as he made me uncomfortable. My supervisor declined. I did not tell him about the prior incidents.
  • On November 14, John sent me an email containing a picture of his bare chest and vulgar language. A copy of this email is attached.
  • On November 15, John threatened that if I did not accompany him on a date that evening, he would jeopardize my promotion opportunity. Heather overheard this.

The formal email complaining about the incident of sexual assault is very detailed. Each incident is dated to show the quick progression of the harassment allegation. Jane includes a description of each event and includes the names of those who witnessed them. Both the supervisor and the human resources department received this email, increasing the likelihood of an investigation.

2. Talk to the offender and politely explain that you do not appreciate his or her behavior – document the offender’s response
3. If the abuse continues, talk to either your supervisor or your company’s human resources department to file a report

Once you report it to the human resources department or upper management, it is your responsibility to ensure they act on the issue. 

Keep updated on the department’s actions, and don’t be afraid to ask for a follow-up meeting to discuss the solutions. Think about what would be an ideal solution to the problem. For example, in some situations, moving your desk would be sufficient whereas for a more severe case, transferring to a new department would be the only reasonable solution. 

4. During the reporting process, you have the option of hiring an employment attorney to advocate on your behalf 

An employment attorney knows all of the federal and state laws regarding workplace harassment and can help you to make your case internally to your human resources department. When a lawyer gets involved, it also puts extra pressure on the company to resolve the issue to your satisfaction to avoid an escalation to a possible lawsuit or report to the EEOC.

5. Make a report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

If the company has not resolved the problem adequately and you want more stern consequences to be issued, you may choose to report the incident to the federal government. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, investigates claims of harassment and discrimination in special circumstances. A follow-up with all parties involved is always recommended, as it ensures that the formal complaint of harassment is addressed in a timely manner. 

Conducting a Successful Workplace Harassment Training Program

Since, as they say, “prevention is the best medicine,” many companies and other places of employment hold mandatory workplace harassment training programs throughout the year. Many employees try to avoid participating in training programs as they interrupt normal routines and pull them away from their work duties. However, workplace harassment is a very real and common issue across the United States and knowing how to maintain a professional and inclusive workplace is essential. Workplace harassment training may be done as an in-person class at work or at another location, a live online class or a self-directed online class. The human resources department may also post signs around the workplace reminding employees of what constitutes unacceptable behavior and how to report it.

Topics of Interest

The main goal of any workplace harassment training program is to prevent harassment from taking place in a work environment. Employees attending their first workplace harassment training program will learn how to distinguish acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior. The program will present the consequences of inappropriate behavior, which will hopefully deter employees from doing it. While prevention is the preferred instruction topic, program leaders recognize that it is not always a reality. Workplace harassment is an ongoing issue in this country. Therefore, training programs also provide employees with the tools to recognize harassment and respond effectively. Program topics include detailed information about the most common types of harassment, including physical, verbal, sexual and discriminatory harassment, along with examples of each type.

Program Activities

Most workplace harassment training programs invite attendees to actively participate in their learning. Lecturing for a duration of time can be boring and exhausting for all those in attendance. There are several activities designed to encourage active participation in the instruction of this topic. Group activities and role-play are common in workplace harassment training programs. The instructor will split the attendees into groups and advise them to work together to evaluate a scenario.

The scenario will exhibit one or more types of harassment taking place in a fictional work environment. The group will determine the type of harassment that is occurring and propose a solution to the problem. Other activities may include creating lists of inappropriate behavior at work and suggesting alternative ways to express things without demonstrating workplace harassment.

Proper Behavior During the Program

Workplace harassment is never a laughing matter. In fact, it is extremely likely that one or more employees attending the program have experienced some type of workplace harassment during their professional lives. The program should be taken seriously by all in attendance. All attendees are expected to demonstrate professional behavior and actively participate in the training exercises. Inappropriate comments, remarks or tasteless jokes will not be tolerated. Anyone who has a legitimate question for the instructor is invited to ask, but sarcasm is not appreciated. Some employees may feel they do not need to attend the training because they already understand that workplace harassment is unacceptable. However, most programs are made mandatory by the company, business or workplace. Instead of exhibiting displays of visibly annoying behavior, employees should understand that there are some attendees who truly need the training.

Knowledge Implementation

Like any good training program, the knowledge learned must be implemented in daily work life. When the workplace harassment training program comes to an end, employees should make an effort to implement this knowledge into their work routine. When an example of harassment taught in the program comes to life in the workplace, employees should remember their training and properly report it. A successful program equips all employees with the tools to help resolve cases of workplace harassment. Instead of letting the program go to waste, the knowledge must be used frequently to help keep the workplace free from discriminatory behavior and hostility.

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