The topic of sexual harassment in the workplace—especially in light of the recent #metoo social movement—is one of those difficult, and often uncomfortable, conversations that’s becoming increasingly more important to unpack. We all either heard about or followed how the Harvey Weinstein scandal triggered the social floodgates open, during which countless numbers of men and women publicly shared personal experiences of sexual abuse and misconduct in the workplace. Many disturbing concepts began to crystalize across the entertainment industry, and across most workplaces throughout the US. However, perhaps none so obvious as the level of ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding the actions that qualify as sexual harassment.
As companies begin to better their approach towards sexual harassment training it’s become crucial for organizations to clarify its definition. Sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” And while this definition seems pretty straightforward, what constitutes as sexual harassment is often misunderstood. One of the most common misconceptions about sexual harassment is that it’s limited to a 1:1 interaction, however it’s often much more layered. Indeed, leering, touching and unwanted sexual attention from an individual most definitely qualifies as harassment, however, sexual harassment also includes, but is not limited to inappropriate jokes that may be overheard. Harassment also includes publicly shared pictures, drawings or posters, or microaggressions such as commentary on someone’s looks (even if the commentary is being shared indirectly). So yes, sexual harassment can even be experienced outside of a one-on-one interaction.
Sexual harassment is a symptom of a larger systemic deficiency. To truly be successful in developing corporate sexual harassment training for employees, leaders should begin to consider a more holistic approach. Here at ELM, Chief Culture Officer Paul Fayad has been working with corporate D&I specialists to develop a leadership training course which integrates the topic of sexual harassment within the larger scope of a workplace’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Fayad said, “An organization with truly positive and effective leadership understands how crucial it is to set a standard which focuses on several pieces: creating a workplace that’s both diverse and inclusive, and creating a workplace which is committed to tirelessly setting and upholding a culture of respect. At the end of the day it all comes down to building stronger relationships and cultivating a culture that’s committed to equality.”
Fayad believes that creating this type of culture within an organization starts with hiring the right people. Part of hiring the “right” people includes finding individuals with the necessary skills and experience to fulfill the technical aspects of a role and looking at an individual’s capacity for compassion and empathy. The hiring process at ELM requires applicants to take the Positive Assessment Test—a test which Fayad worked to develop alongside leadership and organizational specialist Dr. Chuk Fu Lam. The test measures an individual’s inherent personality and helps better forecast the behavior they may bring into an organization. “If you look for people with well-developed soft skills and high amounts of compassion and empathy it’s much easier to address behavioral issues when they arise,” Fayad said, “Then, the next step is to focus on developing relationships with healthy and consistent communication.”
It’s the belief of both Paul Fayad and the ELM organization as a whole, that prevention of sexual harassment, or any type of destructive behavior, hinges on these relationships… as well as an organization’s ability to build an environment where each and every person is equally responsible for and feels deserving of respect. Unfortunately, even in the healthiest of workplaces, issues arise. People make mistakes—they speak off the cuff or tell bad jokes. In addition, the workplace has become increasingly multigenerational, with baby boomers working alongside millennials, and as a result, it’s not uncommon to find a disparity in mindset or what’s considered appropriate. However, if you’ve worked to create a community that’s built on trust and mutual respect, leaders are better equipped to empower team members to have transparent conversations. With the right people and structures in place, those in your organization should feel comfortable enough to approach one another, when needed, and say, “Hey, you know, that comment you made at lunch didn’t make me feel good,” or “I found that joke really offensive.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that people will often have different degrees of sensitivity, all of which need to be taken into consideration. Many organizations put a lot of effort into the idea of transparency and mutuality without fully understanding how to put it into practice. It’s not a magic trick. It can’t be instilled with a snap of the fingers, and it requires the deliberate coordination of personality, behavior, communication, and respect. In the end, we’re human. And while this is never an excuse for bad behavior, the real trick is to find people who truly empathize with the complexities of being one—people who work hard and feel deeply. Build a foundation with these people. It’s not a fix-all and it won’t make it a simple adoption of thoughtful behavior but working with the right kinds of people will definitely help make it easier.