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It’s a Sign: Org Culture & Harassment

Culture. It keeps coming up in the conversations I’m having with HR professionals about sexual harassment right now. After writing about sexual harassment last year and launching a related project for 2018, I’m having a lot of these conversations at the moment.

We should talk about culture when we talk about sexual harassment (which I would like us all to be doing right now, with a new humility and curiosity), as long as we’re doing so in ways that are actionable and specific. It’s far too easy for ‘culture’ to be used as shorthand for “I don’t know why, but that’s the way things are here”.

First, let’s be clear that culture isn’t a magic force. It’s the accrued behavior and interactions from the individuals in your organization. That means that it’s the result of the behavior you encourage, reward, ignore, and tolerate day to day.

Sexual harassment, and indeed harassment of any kind, is one such behaviour. When harassment occurs, it doesn’t strike out of the blue like lightning. It happens because someone believes (rightly or wrongly) that they can get away with it, based on what’s been tolerated so far. Treating harassment as though it is an isolated incident, a ‘bad apple’ intent on flouting policy, or a monster who managed to pass as “one of us” ignores the role of the system in which the behavior arose. Anne Libby writes:

“What you disregard, you accept.  And there’s a compounding effect at play.

I’d bet good money that inviting a new employee into a polyamorous relationship was never anyone’s first stab at harassment.   Many “small” indignities likely paved the way for that biggie.

Handling the “small stuff” when it’s small keeps it from becoming intertwined in your organization’s ecosystem.”

The stats are available, and they’re grim. Sexual harassment is pervasive, and massively under-reported. Which means that harassment is part of a lot of organizational cultures, the outcome of numerous tiny decisions in which people laughed off, dismissed, or ignored lesser incidents and interactions.

If harassment is happening in our organizations, then there is no ‘latest thing’ or ‘coolest perk’ that will make up for that. To be crystal clear: You don’t have a great culture if any portion of your workforce isn’t safe in your workplace.

David D’Souza said it brilliantly on Twitter recently:

Screenshot 2018-02-18 21.11.59Screenshot 2018-02-18 21.12.13

So, why is it that HR talks about organizational culture with reverence and energy, but reflexively defers to lawyers on sexual harassment? These are not distinct things. Lawyers play a vital role here (I love you lawyers!) but they are legal experts, not culture experts. We are unwise to treat complaints and incidents of harassment as purely legal matters, separate from the org culture in which they occurred.

We should see harassment for what it is: a cultural code red. A critical signal that our organization’s culture isn’t what we hoped, said, or thought it was. That there is difficult work ahead.

Of course we absolutely shouldn’t wait for that signal; until a brave employee whose been subjected to harassment comes forward to navigate a legalistic and dehumanizing complaints process. They may not; most of them don’t.

Instead, we need to see the outpouring that is #MeToo and #TimesUp as a chance for us to do the meaningful and important culture work our organizations and employees need most: to stop thinking about sexual harassment as isolated incidents, separate from our org culture, that should be addressed with questionable training and investigations alone; to ask our employees difficult questions, like how much they trust us to address instances of harassment; and to make clear to everyone in our organizations that what we each ignore or tolerate today will co-create our culture tomorrow.

To read my other posts on this topic:

Note: I’m the early stages of a 2018 project on sexual harassment and Human Resources. Right now, that means I’m reading widely, asking a lot of questions, and talking with others who have experience, interest, or opinions in this area. If that’s you, please consider contacting me to share your thoughts.

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to speak about this topic to a few HR audiences this year, including for the Conference Board of Canada’s Workplace Mental Health conference in June.

Read This Week:

There’s Only One Way to Build an Innovation Culture – Relentless Experimentation – James Elfer, More Than Now

Elfer asks great questions about ‘innovation fever’ in this post, and offers a practical formula organizations should consider if they determine innovation is in fact what’s needed.

“We should start with an obvious question – is innovation good? If we’re honest, it depends, doesn’t it? If I clicked my fingers and everyone in your organisation started innovating the whole company would probably grind to a halt. Innovation has some likely side effects to contend with – you’re more likely to fail than you are to succeed; it’s cognitively exhausting so you’ll have to invest heavily in human resource; it’s riskier than building on an established idea or model.

Dorky motivational posters invented internet memes and changed the way we make fun of work – Corrine Purtill, Quartz

This is a surprisingly engrossing read about the rise, fall, and surprising longevity of those once-ubiquitous motivational posters that gathered dust on bland meeting room walls everywhere. Purtill looks back at the arc of Successories (the company that produced said posters), linked to the broader economic changes that were afoot in the late 90’s dot com boom and bust. Great writing!

“The posters evoked a particular strain of management culture: earnest, a little out of touch, and resolutely unremarkable.”

“Then the Internet ruined everything. That, plus some bad business decisions.”

How You’re Raised May Affect Whether You Ask For a Raise – Yana Korytek, Macleans

I spoke with journalist Yana Korytek months ago about my experience negotiating employment offers with candidates of different genders and generations, but was pretty surprised when she sent through the link to her published article last week only to find myself quoted in Macleans as part of their Pay Equity edition. Macleans is a Canadian institution, and pay equity a complex and important topic, so I’m honoured.

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