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Is Your Culture Fostering or Mitigating Gender Harassment?

(Image Source: http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120814001200/theoffice/images/9/9b/Michael_scott.jpg)
Okay, I’m switching up what I’m going to write about today. Straight talk. This is more of a serious issue and one that I don’t personally have a ton of experience in, but one that I’m aware of and that I want to curb the risk of as I build companies – Harassment. Yeah, the big “H” word. And of course, I’m speaking of harassment in the context of the workplace and the culture from which employees could, sometimes, continue to cultivate.
Here’s a bit of the situation and set-up:

I was speaking to a great friend recently on the phone who is working in a largely woman-dominated industry, but her office is mostly male. Since she’s joined the practice, she’s encountered a number of harassment-related issues and gender-stereotyping from her superiors. Not one to let these types of things go, she had a talk with HR to intervene and mediate. Since the mediation, her colleagues have, for the most part, backed off much of their remarks; however, there are still some issues that linger. Alas, she’s learning from this as her first “real job” post-academia and will likely move on in the short-term.

Now, I’m not going to say all the finer details of what was said, who did it involve, but if we step back and just look at discrimination and really just this environment where employees don’t feel safe or comfortable, I think we can peel some layers to understand the traps. As an entrepreneur, I think one of the single greatest and most exhilarating parts about building a company is giving opportunities to others via jobs and creating a culture. I look forward to instilling values and a vision of what the company represents and how to use the company as a vehicle to make a greater good in the community. As such, as we look at my friend’s situation from a general perspective, this is critical to study and understand to foster the right culture in my own organizations.
So below are some thoughts…
  • Her male colleagues said they didn’t know they were treating her (and other female employees) that way. It’s likely that when this behavior continues, it’s then “ingrained” as part of culture and less of a “big no-no”. That is, they’re oblivious to their actions, and in some ways, “don’t know what they don’t know” – this is where an underlying culture is starting to take shape.
  • The HR rep said that this is the first she’s ever heard of this. However, many of my friend’s colleagues have rallied around her voicing the same sentiment. In fact, many have stated they’d like to move on. This seems to point to the common notion that many women (and men) still do not bring up these types of issues. Obviously, situations are highly complicated, and you can’t just point fingers and ask why people don’t “step up”. However, if no one does, this behavior just keeps going.
  • There’s a male new-hire at the office, too. He hasn’t mentioned or noticed anything in regards to the harassment. My friend is apprehensive about bringing up specific details as she doesn’t want to paint the practice in a negative light “just because of her”. My initial response is that he may not notice because as she’s said, many issues happen in the background. If he’s never wary of it, he’d never know. Worse, as this “boy’s club” continues and if this new-hire gets absorbed into it, the same behavior can start to permeate into his own behavior. Thus, the cycle/ culture continues.
  • It’s no doubt stepping up and speaking up can be difficult for women in these situations. However, I wonder if the male new-hire has noticed, and maybe it’s even harder for the male to speak up. That is, in a male-dominated office especially in the higher positions, could speaking out as a male be actually harder? Maybe we shouldn’t look at it as “harder” but appreciate the difficulty and courageousness of whoever does speak up.
  • For a practice that has been running for so long, culture would be hard to change from the top-down. As they say, “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. I’ve found that sometimes, you need outside influence or some watershed event to occur in order to install change quickly at the top. However, a longer-term, sustainable play would be to instill the culture from the ground-up (if not middle management). Having new-hires, for example, band together can be a powerful force. I feel that this should be better taught in schools to be comfortable to work together on these fronts as they enter “the real world”.

Culture can be one of a company’s greatest assets and maybe even a sustainable Competitive Advantage, and it’s hard to form the right culture from the start sometimes. There are some ways to be very explicit in forming the culture, like writing values and missions down, while there are a number of silent cultural cues that can be difficult to recognize and indeed consistently practice. What’s important is the team from top to bottom being engaged, and practicing a high-degree of safe work environments. Additionally, leadership should be adaptable to recognize or be shown when things are awry and course correct swiftly.

I’ve reached out to a former business school professor who specializes in “workplace dysfunction” about the situation. I’m still waiting word for his response, but I’ll be sure to share what he thinks. So I’ll save that for Part 2 to come next Wednesday (10/29) in addition to what I’ve seen as effective cultures for mitigating “harassment-blind” cultures. The above was some of my personal observations, so I’ll conclude next week with the “how to fix and prevent”.

Till then, what are your thoughts about how culture can both mitigate and foster a harassment-unaware culture? If you were my friend, would you tell your male new-hire colleague?