Last week I shared something that was pretty tough to talk about, and very different from my normal posts: that I’ve been the victim of sexual harassment my whole working life and continue to be.
Sadly, many of you reached out to me and shared that you or someone you know or live with has been or is currently on the receiving end of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. One of you said, “if I told you what I’m living through it would make your toes curl.” OMG. How can I not follow this post up with more information?
Some of you were appalled but wondered, what do we do about it?
If you want to be part of the solution, or stop it from continuing, I’ve gone to the expert to guide us. A fellow speaking colleague, Stephen Hammond, has some great advice. Please forward if you know someone who needs this, and keep this advice handy in case you need it in the future.
Stephen suggests that we need to start by getting clear about what we mean by sexual harassment.
What is sexual harassment?
Any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion.
(You may also want to watch the video (about 2.5 minutes in) to learn more directly from Stephen.)
This legislation is there to protect us and help remediate a case of sexual harassment that’s brought forward.
The bottom line is, even when a case is brought to court, most victims just want it to stop. Stephen says they aren’t out for blood. They just want to be physically and psychologically safe at work. I can 100% concur with this.
Why Do We Tolerate It?
If you’ve not experienced it yourself, you may be wondering, why is it still tolerated? If there’s legislation and you’re protected, why does it go unreported or unaddressed?
Stephen shares there is a wide range of what people put up with before they come forward. Many are hesitant they will rock the boat or are afraid of the risk of standing up against someone in power. Despite being an expert for 28 years, first as a lawyer and now full-time as a trainer and speaker, Stephen says he continues to be surprised. “I really thought by this time we’d be a lot further.” Many people have changed their ways, he shares, however, there is much farther some people and workplaces have to go.
The example I provided in the last blog post, about how many of us experience sexual harassment on Linkedin, hadn’t been brought forward to Stephen before; he’s not surprised, however, that’s a situation where it can be monitored and dealt with.
There is a range of examples. Here are some that continue to happen:
- Commenting about someone’s looks (especially if it’s to one gender and not another)
- Hovering over someone to intimate them (Hillary Clinton shares in her memoir about this happening in a Presidential debate)
- Making statements like “boys will be boys”
- Touching someone in a way that is unwanted and/or overly familiar
What else have you seen or experienced? This is just the tip of the iceberg (and we know what happened to the Titanic when they let their guard down).
When these things happen, Stephen says all kinds of things go through a victim’s head. Many cause people to hold:
- How would it make me look if I say something?
- How do I actually stand up for myself?
- What might the repercussions be?
- Who is this person aligned to?
- Will I be believed?
- If I report this to HR do they have any power to do anything about it?
- Will this come back to bite me?
In other words, victims and even witnesses feel “I have to be careful.” They think carefully about it. It’s an ethical dilemma. One that squashes productivity, relationships, confidence, engagement, and even one’s mental and physical wellbeing.
So let’s say someone is going to stand up for it. Here are some replies Stephen suggested for both victims and those standing up for them:
- Say: “Why would you say that?”
- Ask: “Could you repeat that, please?”
- State: “That’s inappropriate. Don’t do that again.”
- Describe what you just experienced (share how you perceived it.)
- Announce what has just happened to you (e.g., posting a screen capture on LinkedIn)
- Say: “That’s not funny.” (if it was claimed to be a “joke”)
- Ask: “Would you be okay if someone did this to your wife/daughter/sister?”
Stephen advises you may need to take a deep breath and count to 10 so you can calmly reply or ask a question. That’s okay. It’s not being weak. It’s getting your cortisol (stress hormone) under control so your rational brain can be in charge.
When you cooly and collectively call someone out on behaviour or a statement, they often back peddle and may take it back. It also allows you to check out your understanding and remain professional while also calling the person out. It doesn’t have to be adversarial, however, if it becomes it, that’s okay too. It’s okay to not be okay with things that aren’t okay. Okay?
Our Humanness Sometimes Roadblocks Our Humanity
Digging down a layer deeper, Stephen needs us to remember two things about being human:
We are a Social Species
Our survival has depended on remaining connected to the “pack”. Fitting in is the biggest issue Stephen sees for not reporting or not doing so until things continue or escalate. We’ll go to great lengths to not rock the boat. This is why training alone won’t change behaviour. People have to do something about what they witness or experience in some way.
We’re Risk Averse
People are risk-averse. In his great book Predictably Irrational, Economist Dan Ariely describes in vivid detail study after study to show how we will avoid risk (that it’s worth not losing something over the potential of gaining something). Stephen points out this is particularly relevant now with the current pandemic and so many are concerned for their jobs, debt and their family’s well being (to speak nothing of their reputation, relationships at work and career prospects).
Why We Need to Act Anyway
With all this in mind, we, particularly leaders and owners, due to our position of power and influence, need to be vigilant and attentive. We need to make it clear in our words and actions:
- There’s no tolerance for any discriminatory behaviour
- Employees don’t always share it but you may learn of it in other words (e.g., GlassDoor); even if it makes your company look bad to see it as an early warning sign before it gets worse
- You may be on the hook for damages so there’s a cost to not doing anything if you do or should know
- There’s information available if you want to understand more (check out this resource to start)
- No policy will ever be enough (you can’t let your guard down)
- If someone comes forward, act as if you would if it were your mentor, sister, daughter, mother
Some Closing Thoughts
Here’s my favourite quote from Stephen’s interview:
“Democracy dies in darkness*” and the same is true of that if we don’t speak up, if we don’t shine a light on sexual harassment and even some of the subtle things that are going on, it gets to thrive. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, find someone who does.” * Tagline of the Washington Post
Stephen reminds everyone that there is someone you can speak with if you have been a victim. Entrepreneurs, talk with a client or partner. Employees, talk with a peer or HR. Leaders, speak with a mentor or your boss. Customers, talk with the manager, owner or share it on social if you get nowhere (that usually gets attention). Always believe the best in people even when you don’t have evidence you will be believed; lean into our social species and away from risk aversion, as there is someone who will help and believe you. I wish I had believed the best in my workplaces, that I spoke up and didn’t carry the burden by myself. It’s heavy.
There is always someone who will listen and believe you. Don’t be discouraged if the first person you tell doesn’t know what to do or take action. Keep going. Don’t doubt yourself; if your instincts tell you something is wrong, then it is. Most people don’t want it to keep happening, so find that person or people who will stand with you and support you until you are free of this. In fact, many people are appalled that they missed it or it could happen under their nose.
For more content on dealing with negative aspects in the workplace, check out the links below:
- An Inconvenient Truth Still In Our Workplaces Today – Sexual Harassment
- Negativity in the Workplace?
- Three Resources for Healthier Workplace Relationships