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Making Sense of #MeToo in the Work Place

Like you, I have been reading, listening and thinking about this #MeToo moment. I feel an urgency to bring clarity to a discussion that veers all over the map. Speaking as a former therapist who specialized in sexual abuse, a former head of HR and a consultant focused on leadership and culture, I have had more than my share of exposure to the issues of sexual misconduct and power dynamics. In recent months, I have been listening to other HR folks, leaders and feminists. I’m certain that my thinking will continue to evolve. But for now, this is where I am.

(Note: My focus here is white collar work. I am loathe to use the term “sexual harassment” because it is too imprecise and inaccurate for the range of mistreatment of women.)

White men have always been in power and that’s the way they like it. Women are relative newcomers to professional schools and jobs. The 60’s was the beginning of women entering college in larger numbers. By the mid-70’s the number of men and women in college was about equal. The numbers have steadily increased over the decades where women now outnumber men. Today, 52% of the white collar work force is female while only 14% of the CEOs are women.

We are nearly sixty years into this second wave of feminism yet work place equality and civility are in short supply. There are scores of reasons for this but I think it comes down to the basics. If you have always enjoyed the privileges and entitlements that come with power, you don’t want to share it or give it up. White men have resisted and will resist relaxing their grip on power and control. They prefer an all boys club that doesn’t have to watch their language or hands to make accommodations for women. The idea of a more heterogenous environment that assumes people of color and women are equal to men is confusing and requires a mindset shift that many men simply did not grow up with.

White men felt their work space had been invaded and for many decades they went about their business much as they always had. Occasionally there were lawsuits or investigations but mostly there weren’t any consequences to men behaving badly. Women and people of color have always understood this dynamic. This power differential is the primary reason they haven’t spoken up en masse until recently. Not from fears of retribution but because of real retribution towards the victims, not the offenders.

Not all behaviors are created equal. Because women have not had a voice until recently, all misconduct is being lumped together. We need to make distinctions immediately. Forget the employee handbooks. Here is a continuum to consider.

  • Dismissive. Ignoring input and contributions, talking over women, rendering women invisible.
  • Disrespectful. Demeaning or lewd comments, treating women as less than men, objectification.
  • Aggressive/Intrusive. Unwanted touching, verbal threats, asserting physical or positional power, no regard for physical boundaries, bullying.
  • Abuse of Power/Position. When a woman reports mistreatment she is passed over for promotions, fired from a job, becomes a pariah, blackballed, slandered.
  • Violence. Rape, physical abuse, forced sexual contact.

To be clear, victims of any of these actions can be traumatized. Consequences of verbal misconduct are not as severe as physical or violent ones. I say this from years of contact with survivors. But the only person to assess the damage is the recipient. Not the offender, not HR, not the society.

As we try to figure out what to do with all these stories, I believe two things. We must honor everyone who speaks up. And we must work towards eradicating all of these behaviors in the work place. Each of these categories contributes to an environment where women are not valued.

How should we mete out consequences? I don’t believe our corporate policies and legal system have caught up to the reality of the mistreatment of women and minorities in the work place. If not all behavior is a nail, then we should figure out what tools to build other than hammers.

We need third party specialists that are contracted by companies but do not work for the company to address employee complaints. Take these discussions out of HR or the legal department. This third party entity is staffed with experts who can conduct thorough interviews and investigations, provide legal guidance and/or referrals, offer counseling assistance or referrals and be the victim’s advocate with the corporation. It would gather ongoing data about individuals to discover repeat offenders and guide the discussions about potential solutions. This organization would oversee the process from start to resolution.

With a safer process in place, victims are more likely to come forward in a timely fashion. The criteria for punishment are determined by criminal guidelines, HR policies and patterns of behavior. For example, three women report that a VP constantly comments on their physical appearance in ways that feel uncomfortable. The VP’s boss and the third party professional meet with this man, tell him what the investigation revealed, offer him assistance in changing his behavior within two months and then reassess. If there are no further complaints for 12 months, there will be no additional consequence. If he does not comply, he will be fired. If the offense is more physically or verbally damaging, then firing immediately is reasonable.

If the process is a cleaner one, the punishments can fit the crimes. Right now it is a mess.

What about incidents that happened years ago? Legally, not much can happen. It is more fruitful to look for long term patterns of behavior that may still be taking place. If someone comes forward to describe that Mr. D cornered her in the copy room repeatedly a decade ago, ask her if this is still going on today. Ask her if she knows if others have been treated the same way. Ask her how Mr. D treats her today. Ask her what impact this had on her performance. Direct her to lodge a complaint with the outside third party so they can gather relevant data. It may turn out that Mr. D’s behavior has changed for the better in the past 10 years. Or it may turn out that other women have come forward more recently. Or it may be that he no longer corners women but constantly asks them to go out for drinks after work. If Mr. D still behaves badly, then an investigation proceeds. If there is not other evidence, the company can let the woman know that the policies and processes have been revised and she needs to come forward if anything happens again and it will be dealt with differently.

We can’t apply today’s responses to yesterday’s behaviors. If we could, then there are a few lawsuits I’d like to initiate!

Where do we go from here? I read so much about the need for a culture change. I’ve spent half of my career immersed in this topic. I just don’t hold out hope that a) culture change is possible and b) it will solve the problem. I’m not even sure I know what people mean by culture change in this context. Culture change occurs very slowly over time by willing participants. I just don’t see the necessary willingness to move mountains to make women equal in the work place (let alone society).

Ultimately, this is a man’s problem to solve. Women and people of color are the victims. We can’t keep stating the obvious about what is wrong. We can’t be the ones to keep twisting ourselves into pretzels to accommodate the white male power needs. We can keep telling our stories. We can band together. We can lead differently when we get those opportunities.

We need CEOs with a flawless moral compass who don’t stand for the mistreatment or inequality of women. When the men who run our companies promote women and people of color and set a high bar for civil behavior, others will follow.

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