In New Zealand at the moment there is a high profile harassment case which is polarising the public, despite none of us knowing what actually occurred.
The public reaction is an interesting glimpse into the psyche of a nation that prides itself on being first to give women the vote. When it involves a man’s career over a woman’s, the choice seems to be that the man’s career is more important.
It also highlights that an organisation “following a process” can end up at a point it probably didn’t intend to get to. Allowing a high profile executive to “leave with dignity” (and I can imagine the conversations that occurred) following findings of serious misconduct has been conducted publicly, providing a forum for the allegations to be rationalised.
The right to “privacy and confidentiality” of the complainant has left her without a voice.
The core of the issue though, is how we expect people to treat each other in the workplace. I have been in the workforce for a long time, long before sexual harassment had a label or a law covering it. Most of my career has been in a male dominated environment and I will say that, for the most part, I have been treated with absolute respect as an equally valued staff member and colleague. There was sexism, and some behaviour that could be considered to be harassment.
One of the best descriptions I ever heard about sexism is that is is like a cloud, you can see it, you may even feel it, but you cannot touch it or grab hold of it. Much of the behaviour that contributes to harassment is the same.
It is the joke that if you complain about you have no sense of humour, it is the patronising language that is “just what I say, I don’t mean anything by it”, it is the body language, touching and close proximity that is uncomfortable but isn’t visibly threatening, it is the mild flirting that is ‘harmless”. Harassment is likely to be a combination of all of these behaviours.
What is the result of this behaviour? In most instances it doesn’t escalate to a dangerous level, it is often carried out by “a good guy” and doesn’t result in criminal behaviour.
It does result in the recipient feeling uncomfortable, they may question why they need to put up with it and they may leave for another job, they may not be able to have a good working relationship with the person because of this discomfort and fear of where it is going next, they may be absent on days when they feel most vulnerable, it may result in sub optimal performance.
Are you doing everything you can to make sure everyone in your organisation feels valued, has the opportunity to contribute equally and relishes the opportunity to come to work to make a difference? Or do you expect people to harden up, learn how to take a joke and develop a thicker skin?