Back in the 80s we wanted to talk about sex. Then we saw the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case, and then we wanted to talk about sexual harassment. While the 80s big hair is gone, the big issues of gender equity persist. Why, despite the passage of many new laws and required sexual harassment training, do we still have work cultures that range from unwelcoming to unsafe? According to a recent Washington Post/ABC news poll , 54% of women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.” Thirty percent of these advances have been from male colleagues, 25% of those were from men who could impact the woman’s career. This is not a women’s issue, and this can’t be solved by blaming and shaming men. What we need is a new conversation about sexual harassment and what we will –and will not -tolerate in our workplace. Let’s talk about what we value. Let’s talk about what to do. And most importantly, let’s keep talking.
What we value. Fran Sepler recently gave a fantastic talk entitled “Why Everything We Are Doing Around Sexual Harassment is Wrong” at the Minneapolis Disrupt HR event. Her salient point is that we need to change our discussion from scaring people with the law to inspiring people with our company’s values. When your employees model your values how do they treat each other? How would they react if someone is mistreated? Talk about what you expect in your workplace, and show them that those values are valued – that they are more than words on a wall, but truly your guiding principles, by highlighting the values of the people you promote, reward, and hire.
What to do. The media has exploded with stories about sexual harassment. It hasn’t been easy for people to bring forward their experiences. It isn’t comfortable to read. But it is happening so as leaders this is the time to lean in. Let people know you don’t expect harassment to happen in your workplace, but if it happens you want to know. And you want to make it right. Move out of legalese and speak from the heart. Make it clear you have an open door and an open mind to encourage people to come forward with their concerns. Creating a safe place for conversations is the only way to get to the truth. Leondra Hanson is a professor at Hamline University and speaker who recently posted an article about how to talk about sexual harassment. In it Hanson reminds us we need to talk about harassment before it occurs and create a workplace that won’t tolerate it.
Keep Talking. A recent New York Times article, Men at Work Wonder if they Overstepped With Women Too, starts out, “It has been a confusing season for America’s working men.” My first reaction was, Really? How can harassment be confusing? But that’s not helpful. Instead I hope if I am approached by someone who is confused or anxious about this topic that I will listen, ask questions, and offer guidance, not judgement. Let’s encourage men to talk to men and brainstorm ideas. Let’s expand this issue from sexual harassment to all kinds of harassment that happen at work. Let’s ask the women we work closely with what is and what is not comfortable to them. Yes, the answers – and the questions– will vary. Yes it might be uncomfortable. But by bringing harassment out of the shadows we can move from shame to solutions.
In the movie 9 to 5, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin have the most “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss on the planet. I do not recommend or endorse their solution of kidnapping him to teach him a lesson. But I do appreciate that this movie created conversation about harassment in the workplace. That movie is 37 years old but the topic of sexual harassment is still topical. I’m asking all of you to lean in and help shape the conversation about harassment at your workplace. Let’s talk about what we value. Let’s talk about what to do. And most importantly, let’s keep talking.