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Tell Me About It…

It’s a bright, shiny new year, and the world has been given a fresh start. Good thing too, since we really need a do-over after 2017. But underneath the flurry of optimistic resolutions and ardent promises to eat better and exercise, we’d be wise to remember the lessons that we hadn’t quite yet absorbed from 2017 before the holidays began and forcibly turned over a new page for us all.

The HR profession seems to have found its voice on sexual harassment, and if the slew of upcoming events and panels are any indication, lots of us want to use it. I hope we will remember that the voices we need to hear from most are those who have experienced harassment in our organizations.

Despite sexual harassment being pervasive in the workplace, more than 70% of those who experience it do not report it. If HR is serious about addressing this problem, we should be asking why, and listening hard.

Sarah Ahmed is a writer and scholar who is currently pursuing a project to understand complaint in organizations. Her thesis is that “the experience of identifying and challenging abuses of power teaches us about power”. She explains what she’s observed about the way that organizations perceive complaints and those who make them:

“…firstly complaints are heard as negative, as whining or moaning about a state of affairs that you could just as easily accept.”

“Secondly (and relatedly) a complaint is heard as destructive even if those who make complaints understand themselves to be contributing to a conversation or to be involved in a shared process of culture change. We learn so much from this: any attempt to modify something is judged as trying to destroy something.”

“Another crucial aspect of how complaints are heard is magnification: a complaint is heard as calling for more than is being called for. Once heard this way, a complaint can be dismissed as too extreme to be considered as part of a constructive process.

A complaint can then be treated as self-referential, as being about the complainer. A complaint becomes the expression of a failure to be properly integrated into the culture of an institution.”

Last year I wrote that although organizations aren’t specifically built to protect harassers and abusers, they are built to protect the status quo and existing power structures, which can sometimes lead to the same result. I believe that the perceptions about complaints described above are the mechanism by which this organizational response is justified.

Easier Said Than Done

We have enough information to know with certainty that asking people to come forward isn’t enough. Our complaints procedures have not typically been designed with the primary goal of eliciting more complaints. Instead, policies are often developed defensively, with the lowest common denominator in mind. It shows. Complaints are often heard through that filter of suspicion. Ahmed writes:

“The institutional response to complaint is to treat the complaint not necessarily as malicious (although many complaint policies do in fact include warnings about malicious complaints) but as being motivated in some problematic way: as if the complainer has some other agenda such as a desire to target others or to damage the university or to elevate themselves”

“Another way of saying this: to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem.” (emphasis mine)

This should tell us (if it wasn’t glaringly obvious yet) that the work we must do in our organizations does not end with the establishment of a complaints process. In fact, that barely begins the work we must do.

We All Pay

Making complaints invisible, whether it is by discouraging their report with our complex processes and our behaviour, or by sweeping them under the rug with weak responses or NDAs does not only allow those abusing their power to continue to do so. It also prevents our organizations from learning the lessons contained in those complaints. Without acknowledgement, reflection, ownership, and prioritizing the actual correction of abuses over the perception of action, our organizations will never know what occurred and where our system failed, or we will forget. We’ll be doomed to repeat the mistakes that allowed such events in the first place, while they fester and grow.

Read This Week-ish

The #2018Liberation List – Cate Huston, Medium

Cate Huston of Automattic and the blog Accidentally in Code hates New Year’s resolutions. In this post, she describes her alternative approach: 2018 liberations.

“So for 2018 I made a different list, and I asked a bunch of friends to do the same. This is the list of things I’m freeing myself from in 2018. My #2018Liberation list. Join us? I want to read yours, too.”

Cate’s post has some great ideas to get you thinking, but I encourage you to check out the Twitter thread for others’ thoughts and ideas too.

Mine is apologizing for delayed e-mail responses. In 2018 I’m freeing myself from feeling obligated to act guilty when it takes me a few days to get back to someone. I’m really busy and I hate e-mail.

Productivity is DangerousVincent Bevins, The Outline

 This post made me cackle loudly on the train, alone, which is basically the highest compliment I can give a piece of writing.

“I often see shit like, “Ten Habits I Have QUIT to Get More Done,” and I think, “Maybe quit writing posts like this.” If you’re waking up at 4 a.m. to write 1,000 words about how you write 1,000 words every day, what are you actually getting done? Just stay in bed.”

“That’s right. Everyone is thinking it. LinkedIn is a death cult. Becoming a guy that posts on Linkedin is essentially like joining a religious extremist group, but for first-world people that went to Stanford. You’re lost, you don’t know what to do with yourself, so you latch onto the dominant ideology, and throw your life into its service. If you were somewhere in the world else it might be radical Islam, or militant Buddhism, but you work in digital sales, so it’s just lots and lots of posting about how to get a promotion.”

Why professionals do things counter to their professional values, ethics & beliefs –frequently – David Wilkinson, The Oxford Review

 This was a bracing kick to the ribs. Absolutely everyone should read this.

“Previous researchers have suggested that this surrender of professional values and autonomy is done because, in order to progress within an organisation, they often need to comply with the organisations bureaucratic systems and that these systems tend to win.”

“They also found that professionals ‘maintain a fantasy’ of autonomy in an attempt to maintain the consistency of their professional identity, whilst surrendering to the bureaucratic system.”

“This set of systems that demand compliance, the paper suggests, results in ‘an embrace characterised by perceived managerial stupidity on the one hand and professional cynicism on the other.”

“They also argue that these bureaucracies create a situation of selective professional neglect whereby the professionals focus on the measurable as defined by the organisations management and ignore their professional values and beliefs. This in turn produces ‘bland’ outcomes whilst giving the appearance of safety.”

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