Skip to content

This Wicked Problem

If you read this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that I’ve been hip deep in a research project of my own making since last year, with the goal to deepen my understanding of workplace sexual harassment as a systemic problem, how HR is implicated in that system, and what we can do to influence it differently.

That project has continued to pick up steam, and I am so grateful to the many, many people who have generously shared their time and thoughts. These include HR professionals at all levels, survivors and targets of sexual harassment, leaders, lawyers, advocates, and even a couple of scientists. When I waded into this I had no idea that this would lead to the array of incredible, humbling conversations it has, and honestly, I’m just getting started…more on that in the weeks to come.

The last several months have delivered moments of flashing insight as dots connected, and many more moments of despair and hopelessness. I’m absolutely not the first person, or the smartest, or the most educated, to grapple with this topic, but that has not dulled my (somewhat obsessive) curiosity, and the ups and downs I’ve experienced along the way. I’ll keep sharing my learning as I go.

Wicked Problems

What’s already abundantly clear is that there is no solution. Well, not a neat, simple one anyway. Anyone who says “We just need to…” is wrong. That way lies an endless game of whack-a-mole, my friends.

Why? Well, as I’ve written about before, workplace sexual harassment is a systemic issue. Specifically, it’s a wicked problem.

Tim Curtis defines a wicked problem as “a social problem in which the various stakeholders can barely agree on what the definition of the problem should be, let alone on what the solution is.”

Wicked problems:

  • Involve an incomplete or contradictory understanding of their root causes
  • Are hard to define: stakeholders have different views of the problem
  • Have no “final solution”: the situation continues to evolve and change
  • Are interconnected, and may be a symptom of another problem

One of the challenges our organizations face in adequately addressing workplace sexual harassment is that a lot of us are thinking about it as a simple problem: “How do we make people stop doing that?  How do we make the problem go away?” To date, we’ve not demonstrated much interest in the complex interplay of factors in a system that may lead to, or perpetuate, workplace sexual harassment.

There are a whole lot of reasons for that, I know. But that’s part of the system too. Our inability or unwillingness to look at the broader system is one of the factors that perpetuates the status quo.

We implement simple solutions required by law: training, complaints processes, and policies, mostly. We don’t typically ask if how were using these tactics actually address the problem we intend them to. We approach sexual harassment the same way we do so many organizational challenges, by telling people what things should be like, rather than exploring why they aren’t.

With problems in complex systems, this kind of narrow approach is at best ineffective. At worst, it can actually worsen situations and further entrench some of the root causes of wicked problems.


Our current approach to sexual harassment training (focusing on negative behaviours and transmitting policy info written from the organizations’ perspective) is inadequate. The research that exists suggests that such training does not change beliefs or behaviours, and in some cases, may actually worsen it.

Why? This type of training assumes that people are rational and simply need to hear the information that sexual harassment is not okay. Our approach may also erode people’s sense of agency or control, and reinforce gender stereotypes, or even suggest to employees that the environment is one in which sexual harassment is prevalent and therefore expected. Perhaps it highlights the gap between our organization’s espoused values and principles and the reality that employees are experiencing day-to-day, eroding the credibility and trust in HR and leadership. Or it may reflect such a narrow corporate definition of sexual harassment that those employees who experience an ambiguous but troubling interaction never bring it forward, allowing misconduct to continue or escalate.

The point is, this is what a simple solution in a complex system can lead to. What feels like a technically sound solution that’s in line with the law, prevailing “best practices”, and our own good intentions can have a very different impact than we intend and expect. We might say: “Well it’s better than nothing” and literally it may not be.


In the speaking I’ve been doing about this topic I’ve emphasized how much workplace sexual harassment goes unreported (the EEOC’s 2016 special taskforce estimated 70% of incidents), but overall we’re not doing well with the 30% of incidents that organizations are aware of. In their recent HBR article, Frank Dobin and Alexandra Kalev write:

“Among people who file harassment complaints with the EEOC, at least one-third say that after complaining to the company they were demoted, moved to lousy jobs or shifts, fired, raped, or further harassed. Indeed, as several large-scale surveys show, people who file harassment complaints are much more likely to lose their jobs than those who experience similar levels of harassment and say nothing.

Our own analysis backs all this up: We’ve found that companies see significant declines in African American, Latina, and Asian American women in both management and nonmanagement roles after establishing grievance procedures for harassment. Percentages of white women in management go up slightly — perhaps they are better protected from retaliation because, on average, they are in more senior roles. But overall, women who file harassment complaints end up more likely to leave their jobs either involuntarily or of their own accord — and others may follow them when they see complaints badly handled, with the harassers still in their jobs.”

Don’t Just Try Harder

It’s not enough for HR to continue to view sexual harassment as a problem that can be solved by more consistently and fervently executing existing practices. The evidence says otherwise, and if we choose to ignore it we continue to be part of this wicked problem.

Our profession urgently needs to bring a new humility and curiosity to this issue.

Now What?

Did you feel it? The overwhelm and gloom? Yeah, I had it too. But this isn’t the only wicked problem the world is facing, and there are a lot of people who have given more thought to how to approach to these problems than the HR profession has. We can learn from them.

Those who study wicked problems say that effective solutions (wicked solutions) are ones which are:

  • Holistic: we may not be able to look at or understand every part of the system that is our organization, but we can start to broaden our perspective and look beyond instances of sexual harassment as isolated examples of bad behavior. We can recognize that we are also part of the system, and that our actions may have unintended consequences we should be curious about.
  • Multi-stakeholder: we can acknowledge that the issue of workplace sexual harassment has multiple stakeholders, who have different views of this problem, different agendas, and different needs. To expect that we can have an effective approach to sexual harassment without engaging and incorporating those perspectives is not realistic.
  • Evolving: that is, we need to be open to adapting, adjusting, and, iterating our approach as we use it to ensure we are learning from the system, which will also be influenced by our actions.

It seems clear that just as we need to broaden our perspective and avoid looking for simple answers, we must also invite the viewpoints of various stakeholders in our organizations to help us devise potential solutions. Not as a cursory exercise, but rather with recognition that if we wish to seriously engage with this wicked problem, we must adopt a fundamentally different approach than the ones we know.

The other choice is to ignore it, to continue with our policies and our training even as the cultural tide shifts onwards and we lose any remaining credibility as guardians of safe and inclusive workplace. In that future, we’ll watch as employees, who rightly insist on working in environments free from harassment and the other behaviours that typically accompany it, leave our organizations. What then? Will we still insist to ourselves and each other that we’re building a “great culture” and a “unique employee experience”? Will we go to the same conferences and clap without irony at the same keynote speakers who talk about innovative thinking, embracing diversity, and humanizing the workplace? I sincerely hope not.

Further reading:

My other posts on this topic:

Read This Week: 

The Truth About Diversity – Joe Gerstandt

A truly outstanding read from Gerstandt. Highly recommended.

“There are also programs framed as diversity and inclusion efforts, but which actually run counter to this work. There are HR leaders who want us to focus on what we have in common rather than our differences, because they interpret difference as problem rather than opportunity. There are even thought-leader, consultant, and guru types who will dismiss issues related to race or gender as problematic or divisive, only to turn around and sell you their very own color-coded model of different personality types, replacing actual human diversity with their own version of the zodiac for profit. All done in the name of diversity.”

Confrontation – Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed is an independent feminist scholar and writer whose current project focuses on complaint. I’ve learned a great deal from her writing on sexual harassment, complaint, and institutional responses.

“Policies can be useful because they create an impression of doing something without necessarily doing anything. It was a disheartening process but I learnt from it: when you confront the institution with what it has failed to do, you can still end up being used as evidence of what has been done.

Of course people of colour are often used as evidence; we appear in their brochures so they can appear diverse. And we are supposed to smile. Just by not smiling we are perceived as being too confrontational. Or to use certain words, words such as racism, whiteness, white supremacy, can mean being heard as confrontational and as intent on causing damage.”

What Do We Do With These Men? Katie J. M. Baker, The New York Times

Baker asks a difficult and thought-provoking question here.

“#MeToo is also supposed to reflect a spectrum of coercive behavior, not just crimes that should lead to prison sentences. Bill Cosby is one thing; but many women don’t want the V.P. of sales who got too handsy at the Christmas party to be banished forever, let alone go to prison. If they’re faced with what looks like no other option, will women be more likely to report him, or less?

There’s a reason schools and companies opt to pass the trash: It’s by far the easiest option. Businesses get to say they’ve protected their workers or students (and evade liability in the process). And perhaps more important, it allows them to dodge very real and difficult questions: What do we want from abusers? Under what terms should they be allowed to return to normal life? Is there a way to explore possibilities of redemption that don’t put more of a burden on the people harmed in the first place?”

Photo by Gertrūda Valasevičiūtė on Unsplash


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: