I came across this article in Fortune magazine by Fran Hauser, who’s the author of The Myth of the Nice Girl. The article title was actually what caught my attention. The article title was How to Address Inappropriate Behavior Without Making Enemies at the Office. That article connected nicely to conversations I had with people this week and was a great response to an offensive comment.
There was great value in the approach Fran took to address the situation. And here’s the thing: we think that this only happens to women, but that’s not true. It reminded me of an event that occurred to me when I was living in Casper, Wyoming, when I was 23 or 24 years old.
I’m going to turn 50 this year. So, this is more than 25 years ago. Yet, I can still remember parts of this just like it was yesterday. I worked in this small, accounting office for a bulk oil and lube company that also owned a chain of convenience stores. And we had 10 or 15 accounting clerks who would audit the daily sales from each of the stores. They had an office manager who oversaw the group activity of these auditors. So in this particular office, most of those auditors are primarily women. And at the time I had an information systems management role.
Anytime anything went wrong with any of the terminals or the computers, they called me to fix it. I don’t know why this stands out to me, but it was a Friday afternoon. The office manager had asked for some help for one of the auditors and I had come out and helped her and gone back into my office. As soon as I got to my office, she called again. She asked me to come back out. And so I came back out and it was kind of awkward. It was just a little bit weird, you know, but it wasn’t something that I could tell you what was wrong.
So I go back out there and she says, “oh, never mind, um, everything is fine.” So I turn around and walk away and she’s commenting about my butt! I have no idea what to do with it. And in the end, I did nothing about it and quite honestly, I don’t know, 25 years ago, the culture, the environment is quite a bit different. That doesn’t make it any more acceptable, but I don’t know what I would have done about it.
I know after reading this article what I should have done about it: I should have spoken to her privately and directly, addressing the comment with her one-on-one, and I regret not doing that. Maybe you can think of your own examples in your own background where something similar might have happened to you. The most important takeaway for me was just how important it is to confront it. Address it head-on.
There was this article this week about the “creeper crew.” And there are these three guys who for the last two years have been harassing young clerks at the Davis County jail. And they were saying that there were two commanders in the Sheriff’s Department who were aware and didn’t do anything about this! And I was having a conversation with one of my team members and I said it’s unfathomable to me that right here, in law enforcement, it’s happening and it’s not being addressed!
I’m so empathetic to a position that a woman could find herself in, especially a young woman who, when thinking back to my own experience as a young man, having no idea how to respond to that. I’d like to think that now with as much sensitivity as there is and as much press as there is, that a woman would feel comfortable speaking out and addressing it when it happens to her. It led to this conversation about how is it that we see so many of these high profile figures, these prominent men, who are being charged with sexual assault and rape. And in many cases, they’re men that we have respected in the past. Think about somebody like Bill Cosby. It’s shocking when you think someone like him who is epitomized as the father figure for several generations.
That was the case, right? For a decade or more, he was idolized. The ideal father figure, right?! And here behind the scenes, or maybe very publicly, he’s got this pattern of abuse towards women that is unacceptable. So I was asking my team member, who is also a woman, what is going on and why is this so difficult and why is it taking all of these years for it to come out? We concluded three things that were pretty important. I want to share these good ideas with you because they will help you address inappropriate behavior.
Bring It Up
First, you have to bring it up. It’s possible that your staff won’t. They might not be comfortable coming in and saying, “This thing happened to me and it’s horrifying and I can’t believe that it happened. I can’t believe that I didn’t know or didn’t do anything about it, or if I knew what to do, I didn’t do it!” Listen to episodes LTL 053 and LTL 054 with Marty Liccardo. He and I did a two-part interview on a Leader’s Response to Abuse and he has some great insights about this.
It’s possible that people aren’t talking about it because they’re ashamed of their inaction. Create an environment where people feel comfortable bringing up this tough topic. Make it personal! Share your own experience. Or take an experience like Fran described and ask your team “What would you do? What if you had been in that circumstance? I mean, everybody’s looking at you to see how you’re going to respond. What would it have meant to you if somebody would’ve stood up for you in that situation?”
See Something, Say Something
Second, if you see something, say something. When you see it happen, address it head-on. Don’t be afraid of the consequences. I know that’s easy to say and I actually empathize completely with why that would be so incredibly difficult, but let me change the perspective for a minute from the victim of an assault or an abuse to an observer. The reason why so-called “locker-room talk” persists is that good men see and hear something like that, and they don’t stop it. They don’t call out the person who’s being inappropriate and identify that their behavior is completely unacceptable.
Marty Liccardo will tell you that this is one of the most difficult things and yet it’s one of the most powerful. If you will step up and say something, especially in a group, others will come and agree with you. When that behavior is not appropriate, they’ll say, “yeah, you’re right. You know, we shouldn’t be talking like that.” That’s such a powerful way for you to make a difference.
Make It Safe
Third, and most importantly, make it safe. As a leader, especially as a man, you have to make it clear that it is safe for your team members to be able to raise their concerns. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable talking with you about it – that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Give them an avenue to talk. Maybe it’s an HR contact, or an employee assistance program phone number, or another leader that they can go to. Maybe it’s an anonymous reporting mechanism.
Make sure they have an avenue to report inappropriate behavior. Can they say something without fear of retribution? They have to be confident that they won’t lose their job for speaking up. Will anyone believe them? Will you or others automatically assume that they’re not telling the truth about whatever happened?
Create an opportunity for this important and difficult conversation!
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