Last week, I wrote up a situation of a friend of mine who was enduring gender discrimination and harassment in “Is Your Culture Fostering or Mitigating Gender Harassment?” The company she works at is not a startup, but coming from my point of view, it’s important to start culture early to prevent gender discrimination later.

Last week’s article was largely the set-up, where today, I’d like to share what’s worked for various companies as well as share some points from my former business school professor taking a look at the grander subject of discrimination with some focus on the gender bias.

To get some more professional insight, I wrote to one of my former business school professors, Brandon Smith, who specializes in workplace dysfunction. In fact, he runs The Workplace Therapist. He provided a couple points to look out for when joining a company.

  • Recruit People With High EQ. Per Brandon Smith, EQ directly translates to greater cultural and gender awareness and sensitivity. Not to mention, people with high EQ can “sense” when people are growing in discomfort. The higher the level of “analytical” ability necessary for the job, the higher the probability of recruiting a group with low EQ. Note, it is not impossible to have both high analytical ability and high EQ, it is just more uncommon. As a result, bad environments re: sexual harassment include (but are not limited to): Engineering, construction, IT, finance / IB, medical offices, and my favorite for the irony, law offices.
  • Recruit People With Diverse Backgrounds – age, gender, ethnicity, etc… Brandon Smith has seen this as a solid strategy that causes smaller blips as people try to navigate working with different people (small accidental offenses), but it will prevent a culture of certain behavior being “o.k.” (Ex: if you recruit all frat boys, you’ll get a norm of frat boy behavior, etc…).
  • Hiring Who We Are… Creates a Dangerously Homogenous Workplace. Ray Hennessey wrote in Entrepreneur.comWhen Company Culture Becomes Discrimination” about a lunch he had with a midwest financial-services firm where the execs were all physically fit. “Health is a big part of our culture,” the CEO told Ray. “If you don’t work out outside the office, you won’t work out inside our office.” When you do hire like this, though, you obviously start to not only weed out those upfront, but your culture is then self-sustaining — good and bad. Ray also talked about the importance of hiring diversity not just in the way to satisfy laws, but also to promote diversity in ideas and innovation. This is largely a generic case of discrimination/ bias in the workplace rather than gender-specific, but it can foster an exclusivity club (like the “boys club” at my friend’s workplace).
  • Champion for Flexible Policies and Encouraging Workplaces. Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, champions better staffing/ recruiting efforts that not only find the right candidate for the role, but the right company culture for the candidate — see her article in Parsons believes candidates (especially women) should look join companies with flexible work policies and encourage qualified women to stay in the workforce. 
  • Finding the Right Mentor/ Mentee Relationship. To say “create an open, inviting environment for safe communication” would be easy, but a little hard to implement… mostly because of trust and the ability for a mentee to truly open up. This is why a strong mentor/ mentee relationship can be a great way for women, for example, to openly communicate about what is happening at work, good or bad. However, the right mentor should be someone high up the corporate ladder, so if there’s a problem, action can be taken. In a Harvard Business Review article “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women“, HBR dives into how men form more bonds with senior execs, whereas women tend to build relationships with middle management. And of course, come promotion time, those with higher ties get the more frequent bumps… and the cycle continues.
  • At the End of the Day, It’s About Balance. The Fiscal Times has an article on how men and women are different in the workplace — “How Men and Women Differ in the Workplace” (pretty straight forward, right?). Biologically, we think differently from male to female and vice versa. For example, New York research group Catalyst found that women leaders are typically judged as more supportive and rewarding, whereas men are judged better at behaviors such as delegating and managing up. The theme of the Fiscal Times article was that men and women create balance in the workplace with complementary skill sets and ideologies. For a proper working company, there should be balance in the workplace through complements.
I was/ still am a consultant with focus in supply chains. That, is a very male-dominated industry, and following my post last week, I spoke to one of my former bosses about the topic. He was intrigued because it’s definitely an area he and the company are trying to address in not only recruiting talented women, but also retaining them. I wouldn’t say it’s an ongoing struggle as much as it is an ongoing initiative. As much as culture is a largely sustainable machine, it needs to constantly undergo refinement and adapt to the needs of the organization. 
Corporate culture can indeed be a sticky area where gender, age, race discrimination is left untouched and ignored. So it’s important to start instituting the right policies early as a startup before the culture of the company is so large and ingrained it’s difficult to make drastic changes.
What are your thoughts on discrimination and bias in the workplace? What policies, steps would you implement in the company culture to prevent discrimination?
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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?