Cultural Shifts on Sexual Harassment Redefine “the Line” for Acceptable Behavior

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This blog is part of the You Can't Delegate Ethics campaign. The campaign posits that systemic change on the issue of sexual harassment will occur only when good people in power take responsibility for the issue and create workplaces that do not tolerate it.


The recent media attention on sexual harassment in the workplace, arising from #MeToo and the publicity surrounding allegations of wrongdoing by powerful celebrities and executives, has resulted in a quantum boost for awareness of the issues. However, it has also prompted some to express their sincere confusion – especially people who started working 30 or 40 years ago. Some say they experience near-paralysis for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.

In response to a column I published about sexual harassment, one reader, who was retired from a professional career in a large corporation, emailed me to express disappointment that there was no longer any room for congenial relationships at work. He said that it’s unfortunate that you can no longer give a female co-worker a simple compliment by telling her she looks especially nice in her new dress, because such comments, intended to please and boost the self-esteem of your co-worker, are no longer allowed. He went on to lament the current climate in which all human relations in the workplace have become cold and “tough.”

...he could not understand why, if he were on a business trip with a female direct report, it wasn’t OK to suggest that they meet in his hotel room.

In another example, a colleague recently related a conversation with a male executive coaching client who was seeking clarity on do’s and don’ts to avoid crossing the line with regard to sexual harassment. Kudos to him for seeking guidance and wanting to do the right thing, but this person told my colleague he could not understand why, if he were on a business trip with a female direct report, it wasn’t OK to suggest that they meet in his hotel room. “It’s quiet. I have a suite.”

Anyone who started working in the 1970s and 80s has lived through a long evolutionary cultural shift in terms of interpersonal relations at work, including equal opportunity and regulatory prohibition of harassment and discrimination. For over 30 years, sexual harassment has been prohibited in the American workplace and organizations have conducted periodic training programs and published policies to educate employees. How could people still be confused?

It’s not their fault. The usual corporate education process on these issues is woefully inadequate. Sexual harassment doesn’t happen by accident as a result of one or two well-meant, but ill-advised, comments. If education about harassment and discrimination were truly effective, it would address assumptions and cultural biases, including generational differences and viewpoints. It would also teach people to consider the power dynamics in work relationships and how those dynamics affect the impact of their behavior – because sexual harassment is about the abuse of power.


eBook: The C-Suite Can’t Delegate Ethics on the Issue of Sexual Harassment


Understanding the Nuances of Harassment in the Workplace

There are two types of unlawful sexual harassment: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment. In a Quid Pro Quo situation, the person with power exerts positive (or negative) influence on the career of the target, depending on whether the target submits to (or rebuffs) sexual advances. In a Hostile Environment, conduct of a sexual nature is so severe and pervasive that it creates an intimidating, offensive or demeaning work environment and negatively impacts a person’s ability to do their job.

There is plenty of room in the workplace for friendly relationships and even for friends to give one another compliments.

There’s a difference between sexual harassment and behavior that is benign but inadequately thought through. There is plenty of room in the workplace for friendly relationships and even for friends to give one another compliments. But people want to be valued at work for their work. Unless you work in the fashion industry, comments about appearance are often patronizing, indicating a lack of respect – even if the person making the comment is not consciously aware of it. Think about the power dynamic: how much more frequently do lower-level employees receive “you look nice today” comments from higher-level staff than the other way around? And what if the traveling executive took a minute to consider whether he’d want his daughter’s boss to invite her to meet in his hotel room? Even if his intent were totally innocent, the executive might realize how uncomfortable he could cause his colleague to feel. Meaningful education and coaching can help people recognize the power dynamics of their work relationships and consider the impact of their behavior.

Organizational leaders who merely give human resources a goal of making sure 98 percent of employees take sexual harassment training every year are dropping the ball. You Can’t Delegate Ethics. Leaders at every level of an organization should regularly conduct meaningful discussions with staff about topics like sexual (and other types of) harassment. Call it the “cascade” or “trickle-down” approach, but don’t just do it once a year with a scripted slide deck. Make these open discussions part of the routine. When every leader from the senior-most team throughout the organization to the front line regularly talks with employees about harassment, discrimination and other ethics issues, a common understanding and a willingness to ask questions will evolve - and a cultural maturation will take place.

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