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Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category

Creating an Intentional Culture

Culture is one of the biggest challenges all organizations face. How to shape it. How to improve it. How to create a positive and productive one. And because culture is all about how human beings interact with each other, it is messy and unpredictable and often very distracting and draining.

I had the pleasure of working with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement some years ago and wrote this paper about their culture. I’d like to share their wisdom with you in hopes that you feel inspired to try some of their methods.

How To Build An Intentional Culture-3

 

Speaking Across Generations

(A bit of a departure from my usual topics but this is what has been on my mind lately. In workplaces, families, communities we need to open up better dialogues across the generations. The inspiration for this piece came from my frustration with a client who is trying to improve the conversation between generations. I hope it provides some food for thought.)

I was one of those ardent, asshole, well intentioned, foul mouthed hippies protesting the war in Vietnam, racial inequality and women’s rights. My brother and friends were being drafted to serve in a senseless conflict, my university had an embarrassingly low enrollment rate of minorities, abortion was illegal, the notion of women having serious careers was laughed at and sexual harassment was a daily battle. I marched in the war moratorium in DC, wore my ass out at various campus sit ins, swore at the university regents for not creating a women’s studies seminar, battled with my mother because I didn’t want to be a housewife, shared my hard-earned waitressing tips with my friends who needed to get to New York for clandestine abortions and sang protest songs with my friends of color.

I was certain that I was right and that anyone who didn’t agree with my peer group’s stand on social justice was wrong. Not evil. Not bad people. Just wrong. After all, they were from another era and only us 20 somethings had the true pulse of right and wrong. And it was my job to let them know how wrong they were all the time.

Sound familiar? I watch and listen to people in their 20’s and 30’s and hear the 2019 version of 1970. In 1970, my generation felt the threat of death to our male peers and the suffocating oppression of women and minorities. We couldn’t take it sitting down. In 2019, the youth feel the threat of climate change and the continued oppression of women and minorities (despite the enormous gains). With the multiplier effect of social media, they are using their voices to push for change.

But something feels very different to me. I certainly see myself in the ranting millennial (even if they see me as an irrelevant relic). Maybe it has to do with the opposition. Hippies had to contend with a 50’s cultural mentality that resisted social change and political leaders that made informed but bad choices. Today’s youth battle a divisive and hate filled culture that has enacted many social changes and political leaders that no longer work together on behalf of the American people. My generation did plenty of screaming and shouting but we also did a great deal of talking and learning. Today’s generation abbreviates their positions via Twitter so that every post is headline or follower worthy. Learning seems to take place more on line than IRL and I’m not sure I trust that.

It seems we’ve lost the art and practice of attentive dialogue along the way. I keep thinking that is why things feel so different and so bad.

The dean of my college was an older white professor with a gentle demeanor. I respected and adored him. He had the (unfortunate) job of overseeing the faculty and students during very crazy times. To pay for my room and board, I spent two years as a resident assistant. That meant that the dean and I had frequent contact. It was not unusual for me to burst into his office to complain about some patriarchal decision. Nor was it uncommon for him to invite me to his office to debate some action I took.

He summoned me for a private conversation just before parent orientation. I was responsible for conducting those meetings.

Dean: Nicki, we need to discuss how to talk to these parents.

Me: What’s on your mind? I thought we agreed on the talking points.

Dean: The content isn’t at issue. It’s your behavior. You simply can’t swear during these sessions.

Me: What the hell do you mean? This is how I talk. Are you asking me not to be myself? Are you telling me that I should lie to these parents and give them the false impression that their children are never going to curse while they are in college? What the f***, Dean?

Dean: In your role, you are an ambassador for the college. You are the difference between a family being excited or horrified that they are leaving their child with us. You are the difference between potential financial supporters or detractors. You have responsibility to the institution.

Me: (lots of swearing and protesting that the Dean wanted to put me in a box)

Dean: (lots of patient listening, not interrupting me, sitting calmly)

Dean: Nicki, I respect your position and feel there is a time and place for your freest self. These parent orientation sessions are not that time or place. I am asking you to do me a favor and help the college. I’m asking you to think about something bigger than your personal freedom at this moment. Can you do that?

Me: I understand your point. I really do. I’m just trying to be real. But, yes, I can clean it up for these meetings.

Dean: I appreciate that.

Me: But I can still be myself at our assembly meetings, right?

Dean: Of course, you can. Thanks.

Long after I left college, I missed this man. I missed his good heart, his grace under constant fire, his ability to hear the message inside a rant. I was a good hearted, well intentioned rebel who didn’t always earn the respect I was granted by this man. I wonder if this type of dialogue is what is missing today.

Are millennials interested in or seeking to understand the person before them? Do they want to have a conversation or do they just want to persuade others of how right they are? Are they aware that they cut off dialogue routinely? How much listening, hearing, learning are they engaged in?

And do we former hippies (baby boomers) listen as respectfully as my dean did? Do we hear the core message? Are we telling our stories to create a connection between the generations? These were the actions of my elders that a) made me less of an asshole, b) taught me some incredible personal histories, c) contextualized previous generation’s struggles and d) created long term relationships.

So, I have a message for both generations. To the millennials: your elders are not the enemy or horribly out of touch. We may not use all the appropriate woke language, but many of us made it possible for you to use your voices today. Rather than shouting us down, find out more about us. To the baby boomers: don’t get so damned defensive. We were them at one time and we know how to build bridges to all sorts of groups. Find out where their passion is coming from. And to both generations: Lighten up! Don’t be so dismissive. We’re on the same team and we need everyone to make the world right. Both generations have remarkable gifts that are needed at this depressing and scary time. Neither one has the corner on the market of the best way or the best words or the best type of leader.

We are in this together. Let’s act like it.

Equality

If you haven’t seen the MSNBC interview with Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, I recommend that you do so. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e98u2lI3mfk at minute 18. Watch the whole thing) He sounds like a moral and ethical leader and doesn’t use much CEO-speak (products, ROIs, etc). He spoke of business being the most potent platform for social change and his passions are focused on equality. Equal access to great education, affordable housing, paying more taxes to support the “village”, equal pay, equal representation. Trust and purpose are the foundational drivers for his beliefs and his business endeavors.

Benioff repeated a line in this interview that I read about a few years ago. When it came to his attention that men and women were not paid equally at Salesforce, he directed his staff to fix it. And they did rather quickly. His comment about this remedy was “it’s not hard”. If I had a nickel for every time a leader moaned about how hard it was to (take your pick) hire more people of color, promote more people that weren’t white men, focus on human factors as often as new products, seek staff from less traditional backgrounds etc. then I would be a wealthy woman. And yet here is one of the most prominent CEOs remarking in the most casual way, “it’s not hard”.

So, why do most leaders believe that it IS hard to create equality within their companies? I have a theory. It takes effort for someone in the majority to imagine what it must be like to be an Other, someone who is not granted power by accident of birth. Why would they see power as a zero sum game rather than something that is expansive enough to make room for all? Why so exclusive? Fear? Discomfort? Control? Lack of consciousness?

Sometimes I think it boils down to a profound lack of curiosity and knowledge. Do traditional (sic. white, male, Christian) leaders study history or different cultures or minority experiences? What is on their book shelves? What movies do they watch? What neighborhoods do they live in or go out to eat in? How do they travel? Who are their closest friends? How many languages do they speak? What are their deeply held beliefs about equality?

There is so much talk these days about how we all live inside of our bubbles. I wonder if that is especially true for those leaders who claim it is so hard to create equity in their companies. But do you know who doesn’t live inside of a bubble because they can’t? Women and people of color. Every day we walk into work which is based on white, male norms. We who are Others must become (at least) bicultural and bilingual. When we walk into work we shape shift into the predominant norms and leave the rest of our beings at home. How many leaders do the same thing? How many leaders know enough about Others to be fluent in their cultural norms? How many are curious enough to learn these new languages? Another way to think about inequality in the work place is that Others must always adapt while those in power don’t.

And just watch what happens when an Other forgets to tuck away all that other-ness at work. Angry, aggressive, emotional, uppity black, woman or other minority, they are labeled. Others have learned the rules of the game very well. But this is neither fair nor equitable. Holding so tightly to age-old practices or norms is archaic and unjust.

For those leaders who have good hearts and intentions, who want to become more receptive and expansive to differences and who fundamentally understand the value in this, I have some recommendations. None of them are hard.

  • Read things you wouldn’t usually pick up. The history that most of us were taught is so incomplete and inaccurate. Read more contemporary books on the true story. “White Rage”, “The New Jim Crow”, early feminist history, Japanese interment, anything about slavery or the holocaust, European conquests across other continents. Fill in the gaps in your education. And make sure it is by legitimate scholarly types versus conspiracy theorists.
  • Expose yourself to culture and arts from other traditions. This could be an art exhibit, ethnic food, travels or literature. Fictionalized literature is often an easy way to get a feeling for time, place and experience of different realities. Travel to a country that doesn’t speak English so you can feel the discomfort of navigating without comprehension.
  • Ask questions and deeply listen to the women in your inner circle. Ask them about how they transform to male norms, how they struggle to be fully themselves in work situations or their tales of sexual harassment and discrimination. When they tell you “it’s just part of being a woman in a man’s world”, don’t buy it. Push for a deeper conversation about the pain and anger of it all.
  • Try to comprehend that not everyone is Christian. Yes, the world is a Christian majority. But religion is not one of those things that folks can so easily shape shift around. Not everyone hums Christmas carols or goes to church on Sundays or believes in Jesus Christ. Don’t speak of Christmas as secular or the winter solstice. Don’t think those Others don’t have high moral standards. Even if they are atheists.
  • Tamp down the urge to be defensive or ‘splain how it is. I appreciate that it is sometimes uncomfortable to be lumped with all those white men who are truly oppressive even when you are one of the good guys. But unless your actions are consistently driving towards equality in your work place, then you are not helping. It really isn’t hard (pick what applies) to call out someone who makes an offensive/discriminatory remark, to realize that you haven’t interviewed any women for that open position, to advocate for someone who is different, to privately speak to other men who are misbehaving, to keep your hands to yourself, to make room for Others at the table, to be compassionate about different experiences, etc.

I was so heartened to hear Benioff’s remarks and to notice how matter of fact he was in his tone. He has a big megaphone and is doing what he can to do good in the world and in his company. Equality is at the core of the issues he wants to tackle. It is refreshing to finally hear someone say the opposite of “it’s complicated” which means “leave it alone.” Back in my earlier protesting days we had a chant. “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I’ll add to that, “and it’s not hard.”

 

Compassionate Leadership Responses to Sexual Assault Allegations

I have been reluctant to use this blog to comment on issues in the public space but I feel compelled to provide some understanding and guidance for leaders and colleagues when it comes to sexual abuse survivors. Our political leaders are not setting a very good example and I believe we can do so much better in our work places.

Before I went into consulting, I was a psychotherapist who specialized in treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I studied, taught and wrote about the impact of such heinous actions on young victims. After 40 years as a professional, I can tell you with respect and reverence for these survivors, hearing their stories and facilitating their recoveries was the most meaningful work I’ve done. It is with this background that I offer some guidance.

As a leader or a peer, you are working side by side with survivors. They are represented everywhere in our population in astounding numbers. Knowing this, you need to be informed and prepared to show compassion as you navigate the specific work related issue that may cause someone to reveal their past. Survivors are constantly managing things that may trigger a painful memory; often through awkward habits, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. If something has occurred at work that exposes peculiar thinking or actions, how this gets handled can make an enormous difference. The person will either feel understood or re-traumatized. Obviously, it is not your job as a leader to know the private details of your staff so you can avoid any potential land mines. But it is your job to respond respectfully when the mine explodes.

Here are a few things to know that can deepen your understanding of what an abuse survivor experiences.

Ordinary development is disrupted. Think of yourself as a second grader or a high school sophomore. Remember how you understood the world, how you interacted with peers or your family. Envision what your body looked like and how you felt about it. Think about what your interests were. Now imagine that someone more powerful came along and violated you sexually. Regardless of events that transpire next, you are forever emotionally and cognitively frozen as a 7 or 15 year old. Now picture yourself trying to fit into the normal flow of life as you turn 20 or 35 with persistent intrusive thoughts that take you back to that life altering moment. Are you the adult or that frightened child? A little bit of both.

Clever coping mechanisms will be created. Children will do whatever is necessary to survive. Each survivor can tell you precisely what “quirks” they have brought into adulthood. For one it is obsessive washing. For another it is needing multiple exits. Hyper-alertness, constant placating, hiding, detailed contingency planning. If you have colleagues who have some unusual anxieties or coping mechanisms that they tell you have been there since childhood, chances are they suffered abuse. These strategies may look childish or maladaptive in adulthood, but they were lifesavers all those years ago so they are hard to let go of.

Acting normal. Accent on acting. At the moment of the assault, any semblance of fitting into the mainstream is over. Feelings of shame, guilt, impotence and being exposed are intense and constant. Survivors feel this so strongly inside their beings that they assume it shows on the outside. Every effort is made to seem like nothing ever happened. Sure, they are newly quieter, more socially withdrawn, skittish and awkward but they go to great lengths to hide what happened. Even if those efforts are not too successful.

Living with secrets and shame. Most victims do not come forward at the moment the abuse occurs usually because of a combination of verbal threats from the attacker and a deep sense of shame. This enormous thing happened but the young person must never reveal it. To people who have not experienced abuse it is very difficult to imagine not telling someone. But to all survivors it is just the reverse; they can’t imagine the new horrors that would befall them if they did tell someone.

The quandary of how to feel safe, secure and trusting. If the abuser was known to the survivor, all sense of safety ends. Even if the abuser is not known this occurs but the double whammy of betrayal by a friend or family member or priest cannot be overstated. If these are the people in your life that you trust and one of them violates you so egregiously, where does that leave you? How can you possible regain any sense that the world is a safe place and that others won’t harm you again? As adults they may appear distant, mistrustful or not comfortably joining in.

For most, their inner strength prevails and they go on to lead productive lives. They have struggled to find a way to cope with the devastation that is still alive in their beings. You will experience them as bright, kind (if not aloof) and good workers. And occasionally, you may need to have difficult conversations with them about odd or inappropriate behavior or reactions. You will have trouble creating a consistent picture of this person.

Here is some guidance for you as a leader:

  • Be mindful of unexplained anxieties. A woman is not likely to reveal her most intimate painful experiences in a work setting (or anywhere for that matter) so you will not know explicitly that this person is a survivor. But if you observe some of the behaviors or thinking listed above or unusual levels of anxiety that don’t seem to fit the moment, compassion suggests treading lightly. If you have well trained HR professionals who have the sensitivity to deal with more challenging emotional situations, you may want to include them in discussions and problem solving.
  • Be acutely aware of power dynamics. All abuse is about power and control over the vulnerable. You are the boss who can dole out consequences and ultimatums. If you are a large man and the woman before you is smaller, beware of your impact. If your style is aggressive, dial it down. This is good advice in general (why would you abuse your position and power under any circumstances?) but more generous with a survivor.
  • Offer respect and support. Listening without minimizing or discrediting a person’s story (if shared) is baseline behavior. Words that are helpful: I can’t imagine how horrible that was for you, what a remarkable person you turned out to be, I believe you, tell me what would be helpful in this situation. Words that are not helpful: I don’t run a mental health agency, I can’t believe you still think about something that happened so long ago, It couldn’t have been so bad if you didn’t tell anyone at the time. It’s true that you don’t have to attend to people’s mental health issues but, as a leader, finding compassionate solutions to make the work place feel safe is your responsibility.

I have said it here before, corporations can set a high bar for compassionate and civilized leadership. Be one of those leaders. Don’t let the politicians or anonymous Twitter ranters shape this dialogue. You’re better than that.

Where Has Our Humanity Gone?

(These are thoughts weighing heavy on my mind lately. A bit of a departure from my usual posts.)

For all of history, the harm that human beings have done to each other is astounding. Some would say it is in our DNA and that is partly correct. The other part of our essential make up is that we crave connection above all else. We want to be cared for, recognized, listened to and loved.

Yet our history is littered with wars and genocides and lynching and slavery and all kinds of unimaginable damage to our fellow humans. If our most basic drive is to be connected to other beings why, then, is aggression, rejection and hatred so dominant?

Tribalism, yes. Confirmation bias, yes. Imagined threats, yes. But this is a description of outcomes rather than an explanation of what is at the core. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I have a couple observations.

We have always lived within hierarchies; in our villages, our families, our offices, our societies and our world. This means that some are at the top and some are in the middle and some are at the bottom. For those at the top, if the middles and bottoms stay in their places there is order. Not to mention that they receive the spoils from this arrangement. But if those in the lower rungs either break into the upper echelon or drop down in status, there are problems. Discontent surfaces if the ruling group gets infiltrated by “nouveau uppities” who don’t belong and the lowest class swells in size and protests their unexpected fate. The order has been upset and must be dealt with to get things back to the way they are supposed to be.

So, the Have’s look at those who succeeded against all odds with suspicion. What are you doing here? Who let you in? Did someone or some program show you undue favor? Whose seat are you taking up who belongs here? Oh, you must be an exception to the rule. And for those that break through, they never fit in. They always feel like “other” because they don’t have the right body parts or skin tone to be accepted into the club.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

Likewise, the Have Not’s (the longstanding ones and the new ones) find they cannot sustain themselves. The opportunities, education, open doors, programs and institutions don’t exist or are designed to keep them out. At best, the societal efforts to make systems fairer are underfunded and encounter extraordinary resistance. “Fair” is not something that motivates the ruling class. Maintaining the order as historically defined is their goal. The pie is small and there is not enough for everyone, they seem to imply.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

This resentment, born from the futility of working hard and the counter valence of protecting the gates, has generated cruel thoughts, words and deeds against humanity. Some on a large scale but most very mano-a-mano. And it’s not just threats to the natural order that fuels the hostility. Much is amplified by imagined fears, lies and the ability to deliver those messages anonymously. Thank you internet. In this hateful morass, people can’t even discern what is worth paying attention to because what matters most is not being shouted over the airwaves. If there is data or news about people being connected in caring ways, it gets lost in the nasty noise and lasts for a nanosecond.

We are encouraged to embrace each other with love and listen to those we disagree with. Not bad advice but it isn’t changing the ethos or the systems. We may have kind connections that sustain us in our small universes but it doesn’t allow us to move up the ladder or ignore the aggression at the office or feed our families. We used to say, “all we need is love” which the hippie in me still believes. But there is no “love-in movement” today. Instead there are horrible things being said and done to our fellow humans that are anything but loving.

It seems that every moment is pregnant with negative possibilities. Someone looks at you sideways. Someone ignores your presence. Someone votes differently than you do. Someone worships differently or not at all. These encounters can unleash vicious tirades that have only one resolution: see things my way or I will continue to attack and marginalize you. We can’t even have simple exchanges without them blowing up. We are anticipating an attack and our adrenaline prepares us for the fight.

Then there is real and significant harm and human suffering. Rape, discrimination, gaslighting, poverty, war. In a humane world, there would be empathy for the victims and actions to right the wrongs. Instead, sufferers are abandoned or not believed or told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When brave souls come forward to tell their stories there is an outpouring of hostility and defensiveness. It seems these horrors don’t match some narrative that is part of the “natural order”. Compassion is for sissies.

It feels like someone has thrown accelerant on petty grievances to ignite the battle of “who has it worst”. A bad, yet offensive, joke is a 10 on the scale of indignities worthy of expulsion from the human race. So, where does gun violence or a global financial crisis rank on the 10-point scale? And why hasn’t anyone been expelled? Lots of handwringing and op-ed pieces and everything stays according to the “natural order”. The top people are still in charge and the middles and bottoms feel further demoralized and invisible.

I keep searching for answers and deeper understanding. I have days when I hold tight to my optimism only to plunge into a week of hopelessness. I want to believe in our better angels. And I naively think there is some silver bullet answer that will pull us all out of this deteriorating mess.

But I’m not quite that naïve. In my work, I guide leaders to have more questions than answers. So here are my questions.

  • Why are humans so frightened of each other?
  • Why do humans hold onto stereotypes and caricatures of people who are different than our own tribe? Why do we substitute “stories” about others for actual real life experiences?
  • Don’t humans understand that we are made of the same skin, bones, muscles and blood even if we look different? Why do we not see our similarities?
  • Why do humans prefer the company of people who look, sound, act and earn the same?
  • What is so awful or threatening about people who look, sound, act or earn differently? Aren’t we curious to learn about people and places beyond our life experiences?
  • Why do those at the top want to control everyone and everything else? What do they fear would happen if there was more access to the top?
  • Why do humans look at those with difficult circumstances and blame the people rather than the situation? Why don’t our hearts ache for all the injustices that cause suffering?
  • Why don’t humans understand that where we are born and to whom is random?
  • Why are humans in the public square (IRL or virtual) so vicious? What feels so good about making others feel so badly?
  • Are all these nasty interactions because we fundamentally feel terrible about ourselves? If so, how did that happen during the self-esteem-Olympics decades?
  • Why is being kind and assuming positive intention so much harder than being cruel and assuming the worst?

We have lost our humanity. That precious connective tissue that allows us to know with certainty that we are all in this together and that our similarities far outstrip our differences. We are all just one county away from poverty, one country away from a war zone, one neighborhood away from gun violence, one boss away from sexual harassment, one generation away from slavery, one brother away from PTSD, one cousin away from addiction, one friend away from rape, one paycheck away from homelessness. Not even the very top folks are protected from life’s dangers. And when those bad moments occur (and they will for all of us), it is the kindness of people we know and many we don’t know that helps us survive.

So, is our reliance on the decency of our fellow travelers only valid when we personally experience hard times? That doesn’t make sense. It seems we would carry within us the warmth of that generosity and act on that during the good times when our well beings are intact. Sadly, that is not where we are today.

As humans, we have the gift of consciousness; the ability to think things through and not just act on instinct. Cruelty and denigration are choices we make. The stories will tell ourselves about why our mistreatment is justified are simply that…stories. They are not based in the ability to see, hear and understand that person sitting across from us or speaking on the TV. We must reclaim our sense of humanity so we can see, hear and understand that when we treat others so poorly that we are doing harm to ourselves. Because, after all, we are all the same and we are in this together.

 

 

 

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.

Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

“He’s our rainmaker.” “He’s the guy that knows the industry inside out.” “He might leave and go to a competitor.” “I’m certain this is an isolated incident.” “His classes are still the most over enrolled on campus.””He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Hey, it happened at the holiday party and everyone was drinking.” “He’s the CEO. Our hands are tied.”

This is just a short list of remarks made to me when I raised questions about a male employee harassing, molesting or abusing women. No surprises here. Ask any woman and you will hear multiple stories about painful encounters in the workplace. I’ve got quite a few doozies myself. With all the revelations in the past couple weeks, I am disheartened that there are so few solutions being offered. I sense a combination of: it’s always been this way and nothing will change the situation and until men start to act more civilized we can expect more of the same. In my darkest moments, I believe all of the above.

But then I began to think about all the incidents where the right thing happened. As a woman in a position of power as a consultant and a corporate executive, I actually have some good stories to tell. Just like averted terrorist threats, the public doesn’t know about the proper removal of bad actors. The CIA and HR can’t speak openly about what didn’t happen. In hopes that you well intentioned folks reading this blog are looking for some sane guidance, here are some powerful examples of things gone right.

A senior leader turned to me in confidence to reveal that she was being stalked by a male peer. As a consultant, I was a safe and private outside resource. This man was married, she was not. She had willingly entered a brief affair with him but then chose to end it. For six months this man threatened and followed her, making her constantly fearful and anxious. She was seeking therapy and medication to cope. She was reluctant to go to HR because a) she had previously been in a consensual relationship with this man and b) the HR executive was a weak player and unlikely to do anything about it. Both the man and woman were highly respected and valuable to the company. After several conversations with this woman, she agreed to let me speak to the CEO who we both trusted a great deal.

I called the CEO and told him very directly what was happening. Without hesitation, he called in the HR exec and told him to remove the man from the company immediately. There was some strongly worded language about potential criminal charges if he ever bothered this woman again. The man left (with some self righteous indignation) and the woman remained safe thereafter. Her career continued to thrive at the company.

Some time later I asked the CEO why he spun into action so immediately and definitively. “Because it was the right thing to do,” was all he offered. He didn’t doubt the woman’s story and he felt no moral dilemma or squishiness. He did add, “Even though this guy was leading the charge to bring the company into groundbreaking territory, I won’t have someone with such flawed character in this company.”

As the head of HR, a senior leader spoke with me about one of his managers. The manager had come to my colleague to request an office change. Long story short, it was because an affair with his direct report had ended and they shared an office; it was just too uncomfortable for him. (I know, the guy is an idiot as well as a sleaze!) I was legally bound to investigate and participate in several conversations. The one I had with the manager and his boss made me wonder if I was hearing his story right. Yes, he was married. Yes, they had sex in the office. Yes, they had ended the affair. Yes, he believed she still wanted him even though he could not describe any actions or words to back that up. Yes, he wanted to move his office because it was just so very distressing for him.

I did my best to play it straight, ask all the questions I was supposed to, took my notes and thanked him for his candor. When I asked him if he understood that he could be fired for engaging in a sexual relationship with a subordinate he said, “That’s what my wife told me when I mentioned I told my boss about this.” (Seriously, that’s what he said.)

When I spoke with the company attorney about firing this guy, she reminded me that I had the power to just reprimand him without going so far as to let him go. She mentioned the consensual relationship, he came forward, the relationship was over, yadda yadda. I couldn’t believe how much gray area she was painting. I was only focused on protecting the woman in this story. She did not have the power. My duty was to protect her from this man regardless of what had happened in the past. With the complete support of my (male) boss, I fired the guy.

This young up and comer had a reputation in the company of being a bit of a dog. Married with two kids, he was flirtatious with the young women in the company. I didn’t know the specifics but there were lots of rumors. Shortly after his divorce (no surprises there), he was more diligently focused on his work and was in the running for a significant promotion. After much back and forth with my colleagues, it was determined that he was worthy of the new position but he needed to get his inappropriate behavior in line. Just after he was given the new job I called him into my office.

“With this promotion there are some new expectations that I want to make clear to you. You are now representing the company inside and outside of these walls. I suggest you go out and buy a couple nice suits and start to look the part.” He was taken aback but was also aware that I was deadly serious so he suppressed his smirk. “It is an open secret that you have engaged in multiple inappropriate relationships or behaviors with women in this company. That is never going to happen again. You put the company at tremendous risk if you do. Not to mention the harm you impose on these women and the unsafe work environment it creates. If you so much as look improperly at any woman, you will be out of here faster than you can imagine. Are we clear?” His face was red, his jaw slacked open and all his bluster was deflated. He said he understood the gravity of the situation and would abide by the rules. And he did.

What all these incidents have in common are:

  • Unequivocal moral leadership. There is no waffling about right or wrong. A man in a more senior position made advances or threatened women in lesser roles. This is unethical and illegal. Period.
  • The woman is the victim. Even in the case of previously consensual relationships, once the woman ended it she was still in danger. Once it was “no”, she had a right and expectation of safety.
  • Male and female bosses can do the right thing. Sure, it would be great if there were more women leaders who we assume would do a better job of protecting the well being of female employees. I have no idea if that assumption is true. Most bosses are still men and they are capable of being stand up guys.
  • Speaking up goes a long way in effecting change. Without knowing the particulars, when the staff sees a male leader suddenly exit, they understand that this company takes a hard line. This reinforces a culture of greater respect and safety.
  • The bad penny only gets so many chances. I know what happened to all these men (and so many others) when they were called out on their shit and removed from their companies. Some were hired someplace else in spite of some sketchy recommendations. In a short period of time, these men acted badly at the new place and were removed quickly. Even without disclosure up front, these men showed up as exactly who they were. For all their rising stars, they all went down in flames.

Those of us in leadership roles have a duty to listen, believe and take appropriate action. To look askance for the sake of the business or for what harm will come to some predatory man or because boys will be boys…only demonstrates how unfit we are to be in a position of power.

As I was concluding a long term coaching engagement with an executive who was hired away to a new company, we were reflecting on his development journey. He is one of the good guys and I thoroughly enjoyed our work together. In parting he shared this: “When we began, I was a mess. I was in a world of hurt from my divorce, angry at the world and behaving so erratically. I didn’t like who I had become. When I told you that I was ready to date again, you reminded me that I was a man with immense power in the organization and that, under no circumstances, should I date anyone in the company. I don’t think I would have understood that so clearly if you hadn’t said it.”

Again, this is one of the good guys who had successfully groomed his female successor. Speaking up to prevent anything from happening once or again goes a long way towards change.

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