Here We Are Again: Workplace Harassment and What NOT to Do

Fran S.

Fran S.

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I did a presentation last week called “Why Everything you are Doing About Harassment is Wrong.” My slide deck was due to the organizers a month ago.  A long month ago.  Before Weinstein and Halperin and the rest.  So it was a chilling moment when my first slide came up with Anita Hill’s face and the word “Remember?”

I proceeded as planned.  “Remember when the entire United States, maybe the world was galvanized by the issue of workplace sexual harassment?” I asked.  The moment was not lost on my audience, who understood that we are now in another of the public convulsions that cause workplace harassment to be thrust into our gaze.  This time, thanks to the bravery and platform of Hollywood celebrities, people are telling their stories again. The hashtag #metoo has done what was impossible at the time of Anita Hill’s storytelling; making it clear that workplace harassment is ubiquitous, and forcing those who would turn complainants into caricatures one step closer to reckoning with the scope of the problem.

Having stood at this place for several decades now—the intersection between what we would like to believe and what really happens, I am of course, grateful for the dialogue, the headlines, the new diligence.  There are plenty of experts opining on what should be done, and employers should listen.  As a contrarian, I’d like to share just a few words of what should not be happening right now.

  • Let us not revive the old saw that none of this would happen if men and women did not have closed-door meetings or ever meet one on one. This one wore us down in the 80’s, when male executives insisted they would never take a female employee to lunch and that they dreaded traveling with a woman. Unpacking the idea that male sexuality is so fragile that being alone with a woman would touch off some unavoidable wrongdoing is just as absurd as the idea that this protects males from wholly fabricated claims. Someone who wishes to take advantage of someone is not going to let a doorstop them, and someone who is going to make up a complaint out of whole cloth (an extremely rare event) will do so in any case. Rather, what will happen if we take this puritan approach is that men will stop mentoring and developing women (and vice versa), the entire workplace will be unnecessarily couched in a sexualized context, and we will ignore the reality that what stops people from sexual misconduct (aside from their own moral compass) is knowing that engaging in that conduct will be career and reputation ending.

  • Let us not pretend that workplace harassment is limited to sexual harassment. When will we see hundreds of people of color come together to tell their #metoo story? I have seen the pain, the humiliation, the degradation of being called names, insulted, stereotyped, shunned, and harmed because of race, national origin, and religion. It is not a rare thing. 32,309 race discrimination claims were filed with the EEOC in 2016 along with 9,840 National Origin claims. We know that most people never report their harassment and certainly most don’t file with a federal agency. This is a very good time, especially in our polarized political climate, to use the attention to sexual harassment to find ways to ally with people of color to make it clear that harassment should not happen to anyone, and that when it does it is devastating. It seems it has been easier for dialogue to occur around women’s victimization than around intersectional victimization or the plight of men of color in majority-white workplaces. There is no hierarchy of victimization. The pain is very real. This is a moment to shine a light on the desire that workplaces be dignified, respectful, safe and fair.

  • Please don’t say the answer is training. Experts in the world of workplace training recognize that even the best training in the world is not the be-all and end-all for responding to this problem. Let’s, by the way, be abundantly clear- – most employers are not doing the best training in the world. They are training online with cringeworthy scenarios of lecherous men rubbing women’s shoulders or creepy bosses implying someone will get fired if they don’t “treat them right.” Or they are having a lawyer or HR person review policy and emphasize prohibitions. Research shows that these do not work. World-class training focuses on respect, culture, norms, and communication, and mentions harassment as one of many things that degrades the work culture. That said, training is never enough. A commitment from the top, a strategic cultural initiative, and alignment of organizational reward systems such as compensation and promotion, with conduct is needed before even the best training will “stick.”

  • Finally, please don’t stop paying attention when the next big thing comes along. We need collectively to keep thinking, talking, leading and noticing when organizations do well and when they do poorly. We need to challenge leaders and employers to be nuanced and sophisticated in creating great cultures, and we need to keep supporting those who speak out when it doesn’t work. I don’t want to have the conversation again that I had with a CEO in 1995 when he said, ”Oh sexual harassment. We’ve done that, let’s move on.” We can’t until we know it won’t happen to anyone again.


Fran S.

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