Culture, Not Doors

Fran S.

Fran S.

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In these days of #metoo, there is a lot of valuable sharing going on.  People of all gender identities are sharing their stories of workplace harassment up to and including assault.  This societal convulsion is good for the attention it is bringing to the ubiquitous problem of workplace harassment, but it is also resulting in some harmful throwback theories about what can be done about the problem.

Perhaps the most depressing recommendation I have seen is that men and women not have closed-door meetings.  While intuitively, this might prevent some inappropriate behavior, 30 years of dealing with the problem allows me to say with great authority that if someone wants to harass someone else, an open door in a meeting will not stop them.  What banning closed-door meetings will instead do is contribute to fear.  Fear of other sexes and gender identities.  Reduction of mentoring across gender.  Theorizing that structural impediments must be implemented to reduce unmanageable sexual impulses.  Placing some (mostly women) in a sexualized, rather than professional context.  Feeding a belief that without intervention, harassers can’t help themselves.  It’s the nonsense some of us have been battling since the 80’s.  It’s a useless conversation.

Evidence is mounting that, while writing policies and conducting training is required, it is not enough and may in fact do some harm.  The real work of eliminating harassment from the workplace is about building a respectful, safe and fair culture.

1.     Focus on creating respect. Facilitate vital conversations about what respect looks like in the workplace and the powerfully positive impact it has personally and organizationally.  There is neuroscience that says when we feel respected, we get a squirt of brain chemicals that make us feel pleasure.  Create a hunger for getting that feeling and for giving it.

2.     Create a feedback-rich environment.  Practice giving feedback in low-risk situations, and practice appreciating when someone points out your blind spot (ever finished dinner and realize your companion didn’t tell you about the spinach in your teeth?  Think about why they didn’t, and then think about how happy you would have been to receive that feedback.) When people get used to giving and getting feedback, they stop unwelcome behavior in its tracks.  It becomes part of the culture.

3.     Use leadership messaging and modeling for all it is worth.  Talk about the goal of every person feeling safe, respected and fairly treated as often as you talk about any business proposition.  Start meetings with asking a question about what these propositions mean, and how groups can achieve them. 

Open doors let the chill in.  Building a great culture keeps good people in.


Fran S.

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