The roots of sexual harassment run deep—and don’t grow in isolation

In early October Harvey Weinstein’s accusers launched what has become a turbocharged unearthing of the seamy underbelly of the American workplace. What started with a focus on the Hollywood elite turned at warp speed into a tsunami of allegations across industries. We seem to be in the earliest stages of a day of reckoning for unacknowledged abuse that lurks in the dark corners of everywhere we work. From Hollywood studios to the halls of Congress, from TV morning shows to the kitchens of multi-star restaurants, toppling stand-up comics along the way, a Force is with us.

The essence of that force is simple: it is speaking truth to power. And as most people seem to agree, sexual harassment is about the abuse of power, not sex. Now the question becomes, where do these early shots at the abuse of power take us? And is the only persistent abuse of power in today’s workplace sexual harassment?

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Meeting the challenge: more “awareness” or deep and bold change?

All forms of sexual abuse are intimate and repulsive. But a serious analysis of this patriarchal behavior highlights the fact that sexual harassment exists on a continuum of abuse–any form of which can derail careers and ignite a sense of humiliation and defeat. As we consider that continuum, we must acknowledge that there are additional abuses of power with the same dire consequences: pervasive bullying, blatant discrimination and–consider this concept–the arbitrary denial of essential flexibility to those who desperately need it.

I am not suggesting we diminish or ignore the essential task of ridding our workplaces of sexual harassment. To do so would be a travesty, betraying those who have spoken up so courageously.

I am suggesting that we not stop short in our analysis of the broader nature of workplace abuses we have tolerated for far too long. A shallow analysis will inevitably lead to short-lived “solutions.” Just as unconscious bias training is an intervention with limited impact, the tried and minimally successful anti-sexual harassment training can’t hurt. But it reflects a shallow diagnosis and a lightweight cure.

I have spent thirty years advocating for and helping to build respectful and flexible workplaces. But it’s been a slow slog. In that time, just as so many have had to tolerate bullying and other forms of harassment, employers and the larger society have also largely accepted the notion that “flexibility” is a benefit, a perk, a nice to have privilege to be conferred or denied on a whim. Decades of abusive behavior have been accepted as business as usual.

The line between the whimsical and random and the abusive is at best a fine one. People’s working lives, and thus the conditions under which they and their families live, depend on daily decisions made by their leaders and managers.

Certainly it is reprehensible for a sleazy morning show host to offer sex toys to staff for the holidays. But what kind of holiday gift is it to dismissively deny a desperate request for a reduced schedule to meet child and eldercare stresses? When does manager discomfort justify sentencing people to brutal and damaging daily commutes for no business reason whatsoever?

Changing habits and behavior to end the inflexible workplace and its abuses

To defeat sexual harassment, it is essential to diagnose the nature and root causes of abuses of power. To tackle issues in one silo after another will not build workplaces appropriate to the 21st century. For lasting change to occur, It is incumbent upon us to embed in our daily workplace behaviors the adages “speak truth to power” and “if you see something, say something.”

By definition, leaders and managers wield the power to shape their workplace environments. What this historic moment offers us is the opportunity to modify how that power is wielded and accepted. Sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and inflexibility are symptoms of a disrespectful workplace. In these divisive and challenging times they can and must be treated and transformed to create environments where Mutual Respect rules the day.

It’s time for mutual respect to replace the rampant disrespect we are unearthing

My firm has worked with clients for more than a decade on projects whose purpose was creating such workplaces. Unlike initiatives that focus on general policy and procedure or individual consciousness, these healthy and respectful workplace campaigns aim to establish clear, strong standards for behavior–in essence, toxin-free environments.

They are similar to the great campaigns to eliminate toxic smoke from the workplace. Standards are established and enforced for behavior within the workplace. Supportive in-depth training is aimed at reducing unwanted, habitual behaviors and replacing them with habits that promote mutual respect among leaders and staff and among peers.

Anything less will not address our festering and growing challenges. Addressing abuse in one silo will not resolve it in all of them. Surely more of the same will only lead to more of the same. The time has come to move beyond symbolic training and finally embrace and initiate deep environmental change.

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