Harassing conduct biggest single issue in faith organisations

In our work with faith leaders – lay and ordained, we commonly hear stories of harassment. Victims are often unsure of what qualifies as harassment and what to do when they’re being harassed. Victims are also reluctant to report it and so it continues to be an issue.

Harassment can ruin a great paid or volunteer job and can turn a church, mosque, or synagogue into a toxic and unproductive environment. Harassing conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule, insults, spreading rumours and more. Here are some common stories of harassment (all names have been changed to protect the victim’s identity):

  • Sarah was a victim of harassment when a small group of parishioners repeatedly put her down behind her back and characterised her volunteer work negatively. This resulted in her feeling unsafe and  eventually leaving the Parish
  • James, a Pastor of a family size church, was subject to harassment when he was repeatedly mocked, ridiculed and undermined inside and outside of meeting by a small group of influential people.  After 2 years of harassment, he began to question his ability to make decisions and lost motivation and job satisfaction.
  • Jenny was harassed when she made a formal complaint against a co-worker to a senior minister.  Her colleagues subsequently labelled her as a trouble maker and made it difficult for her to perform her duties and excluded her from meetings. This resulted in her taking a leave of absence for a stress disorder.

Faith leaders are well positioned to help improve their organisation’s informal culture. Here are four practical steps that leadership can take to signal their commitment to stopping harassment and other forms of abusive behaviour in their organisation:

  • Attend workshops geared toward preventing harassment
  • Create and protect anonymous reporting channels
  • Designate an HR person for your organisation
  • Hold HR accountable for enforcing these policies, aiding victims and encouraging bystanders to speak up

When faith leaders truly lead, victims feel more empowered to report their experiences and bystanders become more likely to intervene. Perpetrators, in turn, realise they could be disciplined or sacked over harassment, making them less likely to do it.

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