This post is written for everyone who is working in a profit or not-for-profit organization. The information will help you regardless if you are in a leadership position.
With everything that is going on in the current environment (media, politics, education, and beyond) with sexual harassment accusations and people losing their positions, I feel compelled to offer some thoughts. What is happening involves leadership, behaviors, organizations, and culture–all of which concern me. So much is being said about this topic, but there is a lack of specific information about what to do if offended and how to prevent harassment from happening.
When I was teaching undergraduates full-time, I created a unit on sexual harassment for my Organizational Behavior and Leadership courses. It amazed me that this topic was not included in the material since it is all about behavior. Several years ago, I was hired by a mid-size manufacturing firm to conduct workshops on this topic for all employees on all three shifts. The senior leader who hired me said, “Make sure you stress that intention does not matter. It is all about how the behavior is perceived.” And he was correct.
First, I don’t think most people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Today I am going to harass someone in the workplace.” So this is my Reader’s Digest version of what I shared with students.
What is sexual harassment?
The definition has two forms:
- Hostile environment: inappropriate sexual comments, photos, jokes, touching (more common)
- Quid pro quo: Latin for “something for something.” Refers to sexual favors in exchange for something such as a promotion, a grade, a movie role. (More rare and serious)
Sexual harassment is not really about sex, but about POWER. That is why we are seeing men in power fall and lose their powerful positions. Based on accusations, they were using their power negatively to influence others. It is also important to remember harassment is not about intention, but how the behavior and comments are received. The tone is set at the top and tends to trickle down. Since leaders are in the position to influence the lives of others and are observed closely, what leaders say and do gives others permission to do the same–or so others think. Organizational culture can become toxic quickly if leaders are not careful.
How to NOT be an offender:
- Jokes are rarely appropriate. Most jokes often “put down” other groups.
- Would you want what you say and do put on the front page of your local newspaper?
- Would you want what you say and do –said or done to your sister, mother, or daughter?
- How will your behaviors be perceived?
- When in doubt leave it out.
What to do if you are a victim:
- Be assertive and tell the offender to stop the behavior. This can be difficult if the offender is your boss.
- If the behavior stops, that is the goal.
- Document what was said, when, and where it was said. Even record if possible.
- Follow the sexual harassment policy. This usually includes a “safe space” where you report the incident outside of Human Resources.
- The organization should start investigating.
Since behaviors are learned and usually repeated, offenders are likely making several people uncomfortable–not just one person. There is also third party harassment. This is when A and B are flirting and comfortable with the behavior, but C is bothered. C can file a complaint for a hostile environment. So you need to be aware of what others perceive in the workplace.
For people who travel with work, the workplace goes with you. If you are at a conference or traveling as a work team, that is your workplace. The same rules apply toward what is appropriate behavior and what is not. Be careful–not careless.
While most of the cases that go to court are filed by women, anyone can harass anyone. Women can harass men. Women can harass women and men can harass men. Interestingly, research says most people being harassed tend to leave jobs rather than file cases because in the past it has been often hard to prove. Women who file lawsuits often get labeled as “trouble makers” and have trouble finding jobs. Even women who win their cases, often feel as if they lost because of the implications that follow winning the lawsuit.
I left a job in the early 80s because my manager was saying inappropriate things and making me literally ill. I would have to leave work early because of nausea and dizzy spells. But there were no harassment policies and he controlled my future at the organization. So I managed to get a scholarship to finish my MBA full-time which allowed me to quit and escape the hostile environment–even though there were no definitions at that time. As a single person who was self-sufficient, this was a risk I had to take to protect my health. I have never looked back.
Make sure you are not offending others by what you say and do.
Make sure you know what to do if you are the target of inappropriate behavior.
Work to create a place where all people feel comfortable.