Are we ever going to "get it"?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is an actionable legal offense. Period.
When the University of Minnesota (my alma mater) athletic director, Norwood Teague, resigned recently because of sexual harassment allegations, my background as a workplace ethicist triggered me to immediately think this is not an isolated incident (it never is). This kind of reckless behavior doesn't happen overnight. There will be a pattern and a trail; and we are now witnessing exactly that.
Boorish, bullying behavior by any individual constitutes harassment. However, in the workplace today, it is labeled unlawful harassment. Consequently, it is subject to litigation, costly settlements, loss of individual and organizational reputations and even jobs. If unchecked, nobody wins.
Preventing harassment requires debunking a few workplace ethics myths. My top five:
• "It's not my job to police my boss and/or co-workers." Yes, it is! If you care about your job, your company and your professional reputation, you should be concerned with maintaining the ethical standards of your workplace. No one can be a professional with blinders on.
• "What others do is none of my concern." Let's get real. What others do is, and should be, of your great concern. You work for an organization that pays you a salary, expects your best performance, and you are in a profession with standards. You cannot afford to make the hollow statement: "It's none of my business."
• "I'm the only one who sees what is going on, and I'm the only one who cares." This is doubtful. We are never alone. People notice and care. They are often simply waiting for someone else to be first, to be a leader. This is not being a tattletale. You are acting on everyone's best interests.
• "I can trust my boss to always be fair (or unfair)." Wrong. Bosses are human — sometimes wise and sometimes clueless. Generalizing how your boss thinks or acts can limit your view and leave no possibility for positive change. Step up to the plate. You may be delightfully surprised at the reaction.
• "I have to do what I'm told to do to keep my job. I'm not rocking the boat." This is probably the most self-defeating myth of all, not to mention the fact that it is also a cop-out. Yes, your boss has more power than you do. But, that doesn't mean you have no power at all.
Combating harassment requires embracing responsibilities in the workplace:
• If you experience harassment, it is your responsibility to immediately object and respond accordingly. A simple, "Please stop — and do not ever do this again — this is harassment" may suffice. You have not only put the harasser on point but, also, called it what it is. Think this: If it hurts, it's abuse; and, if it happens more than once, it's harassment! I believe "Dr. Phil" gets this one right: "Being subjected to abuse changes who you are." You don't deserve this.
• If the harassment continues, it is now your obligation to take action and follow your company's reporting guidelines. Your management needs to know about the situation to not only protect you but, also, to protect other employees and the company itself.
• If you witness abuse in the workplace, like it or not, you are also accountable. You have the same obligation to take action to prevent this from escalating into an explosive situation.
• And remember, in all reporting situations (for your own protection) be sure to document your actions.
• Create a culture of zero tolerance for harassing behavior. Encourage your employees to work together to maintain a safe environment.
• Make certain your anti-harassment policy is specific and understandable. This is no place for corporatespeak. Your employees deserve to know what behavior is not tolerated — including the consequences for misbehavior. And, outline a clear-cut, confidential reporting procedure.
• Provide continuous online and/or in-house training for all employees (not just your managers).
• Take all complaints seriously and immediately follow up. At this point, there is no wiggle room. Once reported, you are obligated to take action to protect your employee (even if the employee objects). By doing so, you will ultimately protect other employees from similar trauma and your company itself from a potential lawsuit.
Finally, there's good news and bad news.
The good news is that management today is operating under complete intolerance when it comes to workplace harassment. We now all work in a climate whereby the law is on the side of the employee with the least amount of power. Our environment is safer.
The bad news is that there will always be men and women who will never "get it." But, at least in the workplace today, this kind of behavior is deemed intolerable and actionable due to an enforceable law protecting us all.
Employees have always deserved — and should expect and demand — one simple thing in the workplace: respect. This is no longer just common courtesy, it's the law.