5 Devastating Truths Organizations Should Know About Sexual Harassment

 

There are many different company cultures in the professional sphere today. The technological boom has ushered in a new a new culture that has both benefits and disadvantages. One of my favorite books is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. I thought I would mix it up in this post and follow in the style of Lencioni by creating a fable in order to teach valuable truths.

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Angela stood in her closet looking at a slew of pants, shirts, dresses, blouses and everything in between. She loved pastels but she opted for a black sweater and slacks instead. She sighed as she looked in the mirror at the blandness of her outfit. She tugged at her pants and wondered if they were too clingy. She decided to try a different pair of black pants. She returned to the same mirror and stood there just staring although she knew she was late. She wondered if her boss would be in today. If he wasn’t she would feel ok wearing a dress. When her eyes fluttered open that same morning she contemplated calling in sick which was a thought that crossed her mind far too often. The blankets around her made her feel covered and safe which was the opposite of how she felt at her job. Angela got out of bed because she knew that she had to and because quitting her job wasn’t an option until she had lined up something else.

Angela was a strong, capable and outspoken person. Her personal and professional aspirations fueled her work everyday. Angela began to notice that she did not want to go to work which was unlike her. So much so that is was physically difficult to get there. Angela had trouble focusing and was constantly tired. She didn’t enjoy most things that she used to and began isolating herself at work and with her friends and family. The symptoms that she began to experience felt like cracks in a dam. Angela felt like everything was weighing on her and each new crack was one step closer to the entire dam falling apart. Her strength and pride almost worked against her in this situation. It was like an out of body experience that caused her to become two people.

Every time Angela’s boss complemented her clothes she politely smiled and said “thank you”. He made it a point to ask Angela if she was dating anybody. “You’re beautiful Angela. Someone should be taking care of you.”  Her boss’ sexually charged behavior had become a running joke among the staff which aligned with the laid back and informal atmosphere of the company. He was known as being “handsy” especially when drinking at office happy hours. Dirty jokes, leering, touching and leaning in for a kiss was a common occurrence. There were also the late night calls, the frequent invites to drink and invitations to his private home. Angela thought that each incident would be the last but it only seemed to escalate.

As Angela sat at her desk, she surveyed the situation as she did every morning. “Maybe less smiling today and less eye contact. Hopefully he’ll get the hint.” Angela had starting timing her bathroom breaks so that she wouldn’t have to see him. She checked the calendar and breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that he was out of the office that day. Every pinging sound that alerted her to a new Instant Message made her jump. Sometimes it would be him. “I missed you last night Angela”, he would sometimes say. Other times it would be, “I thought we could leave at 4:00 and have drinks?” In spite of it all, Angela smiled and said hi to her co-workers every day and did her best to perform her duties. Towards the end it seemed that every smile that she had to wear at work made her feel physically ill.

Angela remembered sitting in a hospital room years ago and giving her story to a police officer. He didn’t look at her and kept shaking his head at her every answer. She often had flashbacks to that moment whenever she thought about coming forward. Angela didn’t even know who to go to. Angela noticed more and more empty seats around her office. People seemed to disappear by the day and nobody talked about it. They all just tried to pretend that nothing was happening. Angela wondered if they would treat her any better. Angela sat with a couple of her girlfriends at a Friday happy hour feeling completely overwhelmed and alone.

“It’s like I see the devil everywhere now. I question everyone and everything and I don’t trust anyone I work with. The fear is crippling. This is my livelihood. Without this job I would be on the street. Without this job I wouldn’t have money for food. Even if I come forward I’ll have to sever all ties with this company and I still get the raw end of the deal no matter what I do.”

The 5 Devastating Truths Organizations Should Know About Sexual Harassment

The 5 devastating truths that organizations need to know are interconnected. The first truth is that sexual harassment happens more often than organizations think and it’s still happening! Sexual harassment claims such as the ones that surfaced at Uber are happening all too often. We often assume that if it’s THAT BAD a victim will say something. This leads me to the second truth which is that victims may block out instances and are often afraid to come forward. This flows into the third truth which is that there is  a lack of education in many organizations about what sexual harassment is and many harassers are often unaware that they are crossing the line. Organizations must teach their workforce about sexual harassment instead of just doing the bare minimum of having hidden policies in a handbook. Organizations must also educate there populace on why victims don’t come forward and teach people what warning signs may look like. Managers should be educated on how to probe correctly if they sense a problem and what actions should be taken as next steps. CNN reported on why it is that people are afraid to come forward even in extreme cases. 

  1. Fear of reprisals. For many in the workforce our jobs are our livelihood. Many don’t have enough income to support themselves while without a job. If the harasser is in a position of power in the company the perceived reprisals are even more.
  2. Emotional pain. Any person that reports sexual harassment must be prepared to burn a bridge and sever professional and personal ties even at the simple presentation of the claim. The victim loses even if their claim is founded and legally upheld.
  3. Fear of not being believed and being blamed. In these situations there is often valid questions on both sides but many times the victims story is trivialized in the process and both sides are not enabled to sit and resolve conflict because of legal mud-slinging. Sexual harassment attorneys that represent harassers may demonize the victim and twist the truth to fit their agenda.
  4. Lack of evidence. Truth and the law often conflict here because  sexual harassment cases often turn into what you can prove versus both parties sitting down and telling the truth. Often organizations are more interested in using the law to protect private interests, bully and intimidate versus really trying to get to the truth and heal their organization.
  5. They don’t want anyone to know. CNN Digital News Writer Emanuella Grinberg said it best. “The guilt, fear, shame and confusion may become paralyzing, making disclosure incomprehensible.”
  6. Affected by prior trauma. For those who have suffered from any kind of trauma, the emotional repercussions of these events can cause paralysis, fear and coping mechanisms that cause victims to doubt their own experiences in order to cope.

The last truth that organizations need to know is that sexual harassment is often the sign of serious organizational cancer. It’s the lone cockroach that warns you that there are millions more breeding in your walls. Organizational ethical deficits can be hard to see but blindness to issues can no longer be an excuse. Ethical deficits happen slowly and they begin when companies disregard basic human rights. It may look like dirty financial transactions, payroll issues, nepotism, sole focus on revenue, lack of investment in internal infrastructure and in-adherence to other general labor laws. I think of some parenting cases where one parent knows who their kids are dating, what their favorite food is etc. Versus the other parent that is checked out and is totally shocked when issues surface.

  • Responsible organizations do a pulse check FREQUENTLY.
  • Responsible organizations hold EVERY level accountable from the top of the organization to the bottom.
  • Responsible organizations create checks, balances and processes that ADVOCATE for peoples rights and don’t hide behind the bare minimum requirements of the law.

After all, the most effective weapon against sexual harassment is prevention. 

Intimidation, harassment and violence have no place in a democracy.

– Mo Ibrahim

Need help? Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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