We who have spent decades in the workplace might be finding things more confusing than usual. In the MeToo and Kavanaugh-Ford era, how much emotion can we carry in the door? Is it OK to compliment a colleague’s haircut or tie? And what if we witness or are the victims of harassment, bullying or discrimination? Susan Strauss has seen it all — in workplaces, colleges and K-12 schools. Heartening, though, she’s seen organizations that work for everyone. Strauss, of Burnsville, is founder of Strauss Consulting, where she conducts trainings, serves as an expert witness, and speaks on harassment nationally and internationally. Before returning to school at 55 for a doctorate in organizational leadership, she worked in management and as a registered nurse. At 19, she went into a hospital room to change the dressings of a man with industrial burns. He grabbed her and lifted her on top of him. She pushed herself off and went right to her supervisor, who said, “Well, don’t go back in there.” She shares, in contrast, what real workplace advocacy looks like.
Q: Do you get the sense that working people are feeling confused about what’s OK to say and do?
A: The MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh confirmation have caused things to bubble up, but it’s not as dramatic as you might think. I have an HR consultant friend in my hometown who has been telling companies down there that they really need to start doing harassment training. He was talking with three women managers about it and they said, “Oh, we don’t have a problem with that. We don’t need to do this.” But this is about establishing a healthy workplace. This is about prevention. Still, my phone has not been ringing off the hook. And some employment lawyers are telling me that they’re seeing only minimal complaints coming forward.
Q: Does that speak to the real problem of women, and some men, being afraid to come forward?
A: Oh, heavens yes. Look at what happened to Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford. Women, and men, are afraid of retaliation, are afraid they won’t be believed, will lose their job, be scapegoated, won’t get the promotion. They’re afraid people will turn on them.
Q: Clearly, somebody needs to step up and say such treatment will not be tolerated. Who should that be?
A: The champion has to be the CEO, COO and board. You might have an HR department, but they often don’t have the necessary clout. Unless the CEO or COO devotes time, energy, money and staff to it, you won’t see systemic change.
Q: I was relieved to hear that you see many healthy companies. How do they earn that description?
A: It depends on what kind of climate and culture was in place before the MeToo movement and the Kavanaugh confirmation. For example, what is the number of women on their board? We know that, nationally, this number is very low. How many women are in senior leadership positions, other than in human resources? We don’t see a lot of CEOs, CFOs or COOs who are women. How do we promote them, mold them, train them, educate them?
But striving for an equitable, respectful workplace isn’t just about gender. It’s about race and religion and opportunities for people with disabilities or those who are LGBTQ. It’s about how much those in senior management get it. Assessing all of that will tell you how healthy that company is.
Q: You’re not a big fan of the half-day sexual harassment training model.
A: True change takes time, money, commitment. That’s where companies falter. You can’t teach managers about sexual harassment in four hours. Training has to be pragmatic, practical and conducted every 18 to 24 months. And it shouldn’t be the same training. A 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study found that training strategies employers use are ineffective. They’re boring, too short and focus too much on the law. This training is not changing behavior. You’re talking about the law but also about respectful and civil behavior and when it crosses the line. How do you intervene when you see harassment? What words do you use? There is so much to learn.
Q: I do think people are confused about where that line is.
A: Men, particularly, are confused. Here are some questions to ask yourself: “Would I still say or do this if my significant other (spouse, mother, sister, daughter) was standing here? Is there equal initiation and participation between me and the person with whom I am interacting? Would I want my behavior printed in the newspaper, on TV or social media? Is there equal power?” Sometimes, I think men don’t understand that, by the mere fact that they’re male, they automatically have power, whether they want it or not.
When training, I give examples. Sometimes, it’s elevator eyes, looking a woman up and down. Sometimes, it’s just staring at her breasts when you’re having a conversation with her. I do some role-reversal, too. I have a man come up and I massage his neck and shoulders and ask him to go out for a drink with me. I have him practice saying, “I don’t like it when you massage my shoulders, and ask me out for a drink.”
Q: What is our role as co-worker if we see something?
A: Ask the person, “How did you feel about that comment or touch? I want to support you in this. Would you like me to go to your boss? Would you like me to say anything?”
Q: But you also want workplaces to be fun, not dismal salt mines where everyone keeps to himself or herself.
A: You don’t want to have a sterile work environment where nobody laughs, nobody teases. This is not about never giving someone a hug or saying, “Geez, you look great today,” or, “I like your new outfit.” I just say, be careful. And don’t wait to start these conversations. They have to start well before the workplace, like during prenatal classes.