Harassment in the workplace … are your staff saying #Metoo?

#metoo harassment in the workplace#MeToo has been trending since the Harvey Weinstein media fury kicked off. Men and women are coming forwards saying that they too have had to deal with harassment.

I empathise. It is endemic. Both the serious stuff and the lesser kind of harassment. The loud assertive voices saying ‘get over it’ or ‘you’re being over sensitive’ or ‘you’re imagining it’ or ‘just ignore it’ etc. have resulted in so much being brushed under the carpet for far too long. I have even heard people say ‘we dealt with harassment in the workplace decades ago, it doesn’t exist anymore, you’re just too sensitised to it all’. It’s hard speaking up when so many people around you are telling you that you’re a flake seeking attention

In the workplace there is a fine line to be drawn between playful fun and harmful harassment and assault. It would be a tragedy if all fun was taken out of the workplace. Probably harmful to most people’s well-being too. So we need to find a way to manage the harmful, whilst permitting genuine fun and enjoyment.

#MeToo

I recall, many years ago, when I was a junior in the workplace. My boss’s way of wielding power over the women in his team was giving you the keys to his company car and telling you to drive while he leached at you and told you off. Creepy beyond belief. What a sad man, but his punishment when caught out for his behaviour was a promotion rather than discipline. How ironic.

Shortly before I got married a colleague asked me whether I intended to be faithful to my husband. In her view it would be catastrophic for my career if I couldn’t sleep my way up the ladder. She said she had vowed to remain unattached until she had bagged herself a Director role. Why don’t you take a moment to consider the long-term implications of her decision? Is that the world you thought we were living in? At the time I was cross with her. Now I feel sorry for her and I’m not even going to talk about the workplace cultures she worked in that led her to believe her only hopes for a career lay in sleeping her way into promotions.

Nothing in comparison to the sexual assaults faced by many, but in many ways every bit as damaging to self-esteem and confidence, across too many years I and others have been shoved aside, treated as irrelevant or ignored by men who assume I am junior, stupid, incompetent, weak or simply there for their visual enjoyment. At times I have been utterly humiliated by men who wield their power and influence in such a way that ensures women are ‘kept in their place’. Just a few years ago one of my team was challenged by a client who was insisting that her hourly rate should be reduced to reflect the fact that she was a woman. That same client also offered her colleague (a man) a whisky whilst offering her a soft drink. What is that all about?

But don’t get me wrong, this is not all men. Just a weak, insecure few whose actions have been able to impact so significantly due to the blind eye turned by so many. And women as well as men have turned the blind eye, so let’s not play the blame game there!

‘Oh, don’t mind him, he does it to everyone’, ‘you ought to enjoy it’, ‘perhaps you should lose the high heels’, ‘you chose to go down to the bar alone in that hotel’…

But of course, harassment doesn’t continue forever. As a younger person, I was harassed but as an older woman I’m usually ignored. It is as though I am utterly invisible to some people. It’s been quite eye opening to watch how someone can cross your path as they head towards a younger person and if you ask them they simply say ‘I never even saw you there’. Quite invisible. You sort of have to experience it to believe it.

Compared to harassment, invisibility is probably the better option, although that brings its own challenges. At 57 years of age Andrew Marr is quoted as saying if he was a woman his presenting career would have been over ten years previously. That’s a lot of lost income for women. On the scrap heap in your forties. For my part, how do you successfully run a business when you have started to become invisible to those who might buy from you or supply to you?

But I have strayed from my topic. I didn’t want to write about older women’s invisibility and how being ignored affects your confidence…just when you thought you’d cracked it after spending years building up your confidence as a result of being seen to be less than competent due to being a working mother……just after you’d spent years building up your confidence as a result of being repeatedly told you have no gravitas or real strengths as a young woman! Instead, what I wanted to write about was whether your staff are also saying ‘MeToo’ and what that might mean for your organisation.

This raised awareness and confidence to speak out is going to bring skeletons out of closets whether we like it or not. How are you going to deal with it? How are we all going to deal with it?

You might be about to have women, and some men, bringing harassment woes to your door that have festered for years and perhaps even been exacerbated as a result of experiences in organisations, before they were even employed by you. But at the same time, you will probably need to ensure that other employees are not starting to feel as though their backs are against the wall with a witch hunt about to kick off.

Careful, sensitive, prudent management will be required.

A few things to put in place to protect you from legal claims …

… this could be a sensible approach, especially given that tribunal claims are about to shoot through the roof again as a result of the fees being removed by the government.

  • When did you last do diversity and inclusion training for your staff? Do they all have the essential knowledge of what your policy says and what they should and should not be doing and saying?
  • Consider unconscious bias training as well to raise awareness of the harassment issues that occur but that are not overt or intentional. Just learning about some of the unconscious bias research could identify for you where your risks lie and also where your opportunities lie in respect of cultural and procedural change.
  • Review your harassment and whistle-blowing policy. Are they up to date and relevant to the organisation you are currently in? Do your family friendly policies also tie in to these policies making the whole approach seamless?
  • Training managers to recognise what a grievance is. It doesn’t always come in a letter entitled ‘grievance’ so they need to know how to spot one. You really can’t afford to let a formal grievance slip between the cracks and never be dealt with.
  • Educating HR about the legal costs that can be incurred if they receive a grievance but don’t treat it seriously or formally enough. It’s not always managers that make mistakes here, HR staff do too, especially if they are distracted implementing projects or fire fighting the day to day HR stuff.
  • Conducting a snap shot of employee morale. We live in unpredictable and challenging political times and that is impacting in many ways. Keep a finger on the pulse of the morale in your business. When it drops, that is the time you need to be ready for grievances and disputes.
  • Don’t ignore the men in your business. So far 300,000 men around the world have also posted using #MeToo. This is also not just a gender issue, anyone and everyone can be affected by harassment or assault, so be aware.

And finally…

If of interest, our hrdocswizard.co.uk service can provide you with up to date policies, letters for grievance hearings and very shortly will also include some video clips on conducting investigations.

We also deliver lots of diversity and inclusion training, training on unconscious bias and training on managing grievances.

If you are unfortunate and have a number of grievances raised in rapid succession meaning that you run out of internal resource, our consultants can support with investigations, chairing meetings, note taking at meetings.

You don’t have to feel unsupported or alone when life gets complicated. Please do call!

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