We are seeing floods of #metoo stories across social media – the hashtag is being used to give a sense of the sheer number of people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. I use people instead of women very specifically because it would be a huge mistake to assume this is just happening to women. It’s also a conversation we need to have around workplace activity as so many of the situations that come up seem to be based around managers, colleagues, clients and customers putting themselves in a position of power.
Like many people I’ve been in that position although I’m pleased to say it hasn’t been for a number of years. I can give you examples of Managers who insisted I sit on the desk in front of them during workplace conversations, ‘accidental’ hotel bookings with not enough rooms, members of senior management coming into my office and locking the door behind them and many more. All of this was done by people who were in positions of power over me, over my job and over my career.
All of these instances happened when I either didn’t have anyone to talk to about it or when the people I raised it with didn’t take me seriously. I was told that the people involved were just playing or that that didn’t sound like them at all so I was probably mistaken.
Workplace sexual harassment is rife in every single industry but we can change that. By putting in place some simple changes and ways of working we can make the workplace a safe space.
- Take people seriously when they raise concerns with you. Yes it might be a lot of trouble to investigate it and yes it might not be true but start from a position of belief and understanding. Don’t make someone who has possibly been a victim of harassment feel even more shame and awkwardness than they already do.
- Lead by example – if you see something happening that looks like someone is being made to feel uncomfortable or victimised then call it out. Don’t just stand by. If you hear any colleagues talking about anyone in your organisation in a sexual manner then call them out on it – immediately. It takes guts to stand up to someone but you’ve just given the victim an ally which will feel like a life raft to them.
- Think about how you talk about people – don’t introduce colleagues and staff members as ‘the lovely’, ‘the beautiful’ or ‘the handsome’. I’m sure they have some professional achievements you can introduce them with such as – ‘the bright’, ‘the ambitious’, ‘the talented’.
- Don’t assume that because someone seems comfortable with something that means they are. We all know how to survive in our own workplaces and sometimes that means letting comments and actions slide – even if they do make you feel uncomfortable. Just because someone is laughing with you now doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling fearful, ashamed or like they don’t have a choice but to go along with it.
- This should go without saying but it needs to be said out loud still – DO NOT LAY YOUR HANDS ON ANYONE UNLESS YOU HAVE THEIR PERMISSION FIRST. Don’t be pedantic, you know I don’t mean handshakes or passing them a cup of coffee. I’m talking about kisses to say hello, hugs to say congratulations and slapping someone on the backside if they reach down to get something they dropped. So once again here it is – DO NOT LAY YOUR HANDS ON ANYONE UNLESS YOU HAVE THEIR PERMISSION FIRST. There are many things you can do with employees – you can grant holiday, give payrises and you can sack them but their body doesn’t belong to you and your hands have no place on it.
Be an equality champion. Yes that’s a nerdy term I know but it has a place. Things in workplaces will only change if people work together to make it happen and you need to be brave to do it. If you see something happening that you feel isn’t right then call it out. If you hear someone talking about a male or female colleague in a way that seems sexual then call it out. If you see a behaviour you think doesn’t look right then call it out. It’s also just as important to have a process in place for people to report to – otherwise how does someone report unwanted behaviour from a manager when it’s the same person they are supposed to report it to in the first place? Some of my examples happened when I worked in HR departments…..who was I supposed to speak to?
Be brave. Stand up for people. Don’t let someone you know end up with their own #metoo story