#WorkTrends: Sexual Harassment In Virtual Workplaces

An ill-suited conversation. A moment of innuendo. Or a comment targeted at our gender, wardrobe choices, and even our hairstyles. Each, depending on context, are considered sexually harassing messages. And yet, especially in a remote working environment, identifying harassment often comes down to a feeling you get rather than something you can prove. You feel the other person’s behavior or comment was inappropriate. But was it sexual harassment?

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Under any circumstances, this is not an easy topic. Now, with many employees working from home, the degree of difficulty has only increased. After all, sexual harassment does not always occur face-to-face or by touch; video conferences, emails and texts, and collaboration platforms like Slack are also delivery methods.

The Uncomfortable Conversation: Sexual Harassment

I invited Sarah Beaulieu, co-founder of The Uncomfortable Conversation and author of the book Breaking the Silence Habit: A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the #MeToo Workplace, to join me on #WorkTrends℠. In a frank discussion, we dove into the nuances of socially distanced forms of sexual harassment. I quickly learned this is an issue Sarah deeply cares about, and has since her first discussion on the subject: “In that moment, and in the conversations that followed, I learned about the power of a single conversation.”

Sarah emphasized that work cultures are work cultures, face-to-face or not – and harassment is harassment. Regardless of our working environment, she said we need to set our own personal boundaries, and organizations must set them as well. “Individually and organizationally – collectively – we’re responsible for holding the line,” Sarah said. “When we hold that line together, and in service of our work culture, it’s less likely sexual harassment takes place.”

The Role Silence Plays

During our conversation, I was particularly struck by the role silence plays in enabling sexual harassment — and how, over time, that silence can be so damaging to workplace culture. Sarah agrees, and astutely adds: Silence is a choice – and culture is the conversations we choose to have, or not have, together.”

Yes, sexual harassment is a difficult topic. And yet I’m so glad we started this discussion. Please, listen to the entire podcast. In our time together, Sarah shares so much of herself and her work. And every word will help us start the uncomfortable – but absolutely necessary – conversations.

Find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.


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#WorkTrends Recap: How Leaders Can Create an Open Dialogue About Sexual Harassment

Has the mood in your office changed since October 5, 2017?

You probably don’t remember the exact date like Jonathan Segal does, but I’m willing to bet your world has changed a little since the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story broke.

That day “blew the top off any denial that harassment was a serious problem. We all know it’s a serious problem. Now there is no excuse for any organization to ignore it,” says Segal, my longtime friend, a prominent HR attorney and a member of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.

Talking about harassment is hard enough among friends, but in the workplace, it’s even more loaded. There are a lot of complicated dynamics to explore. I asked Segal for his take on how leaders can facilitate these tough conversations.

Rethink Training on Sexual Harassment

There’s been a lot of talk about whether training about sexual harassment is effective. Segal says that harassment training is just like anything else: quality matters. He shared his tips for building a truly effective training program:

  • Focus on the human element, not just legal compliance. “If you focus on, ‘This is what we need to do to stay out of court,’ then you devalue the human element,” he says. “This is about preventing harm.”
  • Train managers to be proactive. Managers should be on the lookout for any behavior potentially on the continuum of harassment, and respond proactively by reporting everything to HR.
  • Use clear language and practical examples. Training language can’t be canned legalese, he says. Don’t get lost in legal labels. “Sometimes, I see training and I don’t even know what it means — and I’m a lawyer. You have to be specific. A policy and training should make clear what behaviors are unacceptable, even if they’re not unlawful.” For example, using a sexist quote in the workplace probably isn’t unlawful, but it still warrants a response.
  • Customize the training based on your people’s needs and risks. Segal says that one of the key elements of an effective training is customization. “If it’s off the shelf, usually it’s going to be of minimal value.” He recommends pinpointing the unique risk factors in your organization: Do you have a younger workforce? Are individuals reliant on tips? Are people working at decentralized locations?

Not Sure What’s OK? Consider These 3 Factors

The whirlwind of allegations, legal cases and conversations about sexual harassment might make some people second-guess their previous behaviors. For example, is it okay to give a coworker a hug? Segal says you should consider three factors when you’re navigating an unclear situation:

  • Relationship
  • Context
  • Power

“If someone at a holiday party gives someone a hug and says, ‘Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,’ and it’s in front of other people, I think that’s socially acceptable. I wouldn’t say you can’t do that.” But, he says, walking into someone’s office and saying, “Hey, it’s time for your Friday hug” is different.

Another example: “If I were in a business meeting with five people and there were four men and you, even though we’re friends, I might think in that setting, ‘You know what? I’m gonna shake your hand,’” he says. “Then, afterwards I could say, ‘Now, as a friend, I’m going to give you a hug.’” But I might be thoughtful about the context.”

If you’re a hugger (like I am!), it might be time to rethink who you hug and when. Segal says it’s all about self-awareness. “Try to be thoughtful about the when, the where, the who — all those factors — because other people have different perspectives on it.”

Get Serious About Your Non-Retaliation Policy

Segal says that many employees who experience sexual harassment don’t ever speak up because they fear retaliation. He says we’ll never get to a point where people feel more comfortable coming forward unless there’s a non-retaliation policy that’s actually reflected in the culture. That means that people who stand up won’t face consequences in terms of assignments, promotions and even whether people will speak to them at work. “A critical part of getting people comfortable speaking up is making sure there’s no retaliation if they do,” he says.

Speak Up and Stand Up

“If you’re in leadership, there’s no such thing as being a passive bystander,” he says. “If you see or hear unacceptable conduct, and you’re a leader, and you ignore it, you are condoning it by your silence and you’re sending a powerful message. If we see it or hear it, even if a complaint isn’t made, we need to stand up.” Sometimes, that may mean standing up to people senior to you.

Don’t Completely Recede

Segal says he’s worried that men will completely back away from interacting with women professionally because they don’t want to accidentally offend anyone. But that approach can have unwanted, gendered consequences, as well. “If men withdraw from women, then they’d be giving men advantages through social interactions that women aren’t having. More social inclusion, the business trips, the mentoring. The strategy for avoiding harassment can’t be to avoid people of the opposite or same sex. It has to be avoiding the behaviors and being thoughtful about what you’re doing with people.”

Segal says he’s encouraged about the post-October 5 world we’re living in now. “I think we now know that what people may have accepted before, they won’t now. I think that’s a really good thing. When you think about harassing behavior along the continuum, it’s abusive. Abuse is often kept quiet, and it’s a secret. That’s part of why it continues.” So bringing these issues out into the open is good for everyone, he says.

“I was in line for coffee and I heard two people actually having a conversation: ‘You think it was okay that I said this?’ ‘Well, I’m not sure that I would have said that.’ I don’t know what the answer was, but I think it was great that they were having the conversation.”

Stay tuned for more inspiration on the #WorkTrends podcast, every Wednesday:

When the Boss Touches Our Hearts and Not Our Butts

“You know, your butt looks so bad in the outfit you’re wearing, that I was surprised when I touched it, it felt good.”

Imagine hearing that on a date, or in the office, or on a date at your office party, or even your boss hitting on you at the office or at a party. Pretty horrible don’t you think, especially if you were the one experiencing it. This was actually a real dating story referenced in one of my favorite podcasts called StartUp from Gimlet Media. It’s actually from their season two opener about a new dating/matchmaking startup called Dating Ring.

Unfortunately there are too many horrible true stories about how crappy we actually treat each other on the job, especially when we’re the boss. This is the stuff employees never forget. We talked about this at length on the TalentCulture #TChat Show with Tony Deblauwe, Founder of consulting firm HR4Change.

It doesn’t help that we’re still faced with a difficult and complex economic landscape, one we’ve never before seen in the modern world. Regardless of the job growth of late and unemployment plummeting, wages are still pretty flat and employers and workers are under a great deal of strain to produce. That combined with those who have limited to no impulse control, and those with no boundary-setting skills, and you’ve got thousands of annual EEOC sexual harassment complaints and more.

But according to Gallup employee engagement inched up a bit over the past three years. However, 7 out of 10 employees are still unhappy overall. Managers, executives and officers faired a little better, but there’s still 6 out of 10 unhappy bosses out there.

So much for empowering the workplace.

But if you flip the numbers and think about, we can and do empower, and there are happier and engaged employees and business leaders out there. I work with them; I am them. Maybe you are, too. Sure we make stupid mistakes and maybe do the occasional inappropriate thing (but not the egregious ones). No one is perfect.

Sometimes what simply makes a good boss great is the consistent ability to listen and provide appropriate responses for even the most seemingly benign of comments. To sharing insight with his or her team, department and company that is heartfelt and true and yet not divergent from growing a successful business.

Since I work remotely, I only get to see the PeopleFluent marketing team one every month or two. Recently we had an offsite to brainstorm and team build and strategize and all the things you do when you have an offsite. Invaluable bonding and planning time as always, our boss said something to us all that really resonated, something I’ve said in similar ways to teams of my own.

She told us that while the big “L” leadership (executive management) is important to business success, the little “l” leadership is what’s critical – for each of us to strive to be leaders of self and leaders among peers, to be the truest empowerment of the workplace, one where we all can reap both the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

This is also the stuff we never forget and the part we wish the other 60 percent of disengaged managers aspired to, the part when the boss touches our hearts and not our butts.