This past weekend I had an uncomfortable experience with a guy who over the span of 3 hours felt the need to pick on me, mansplain to me, and just generally be a creeper. It got to the point where I had to ignore him and as soon as I could, get out of there. I feel that if things had gotten any worse, I would have gone to the organizers of the event. But I am upset at myself because I shouldn’t have needed things to get worse to say something.
Sure I pushed back on him when he was being a jerk; I like to think I am a person who stands up for herself and can hold her own in an argument. I’m a smart woman with resources and support. But why didn’t I say anything to anyone who had the authority to remove him? Why didn’t I get up, find my husband, and ask for help? Why did the other people who witnessed his behavior towards me not say anything? Why did I feel like all the harassment wasn’t justification enough? I do know that if I had gone to the organizers or my husband they would have listened to me, so why didn’t I say anything until after I had already left?
Now imagine I am your employee and that this was a work event or even a meeting in the office. Imagine that it wasn’t a stranger but my boss, a co-worker, or a client. Imagine that I’m not only a woman but I’m Hispanic. Or a Muslim. Or a gay man. How about a transgender man? What if I was in the closet and wasn’t ready to come out? Or what if I was an atheist but didn’t feel like sharing my personal religious beliefs with others? Imagine that I didn’t feel like people in authority would listen to me, take me seriously, or be willing to help? What if I was afraid that if I did speak out, things would only get worse?
This is a sad reality your employees may be dealing with on a daily basis and you may have NO IDEA it is happening. My one mansplaing jerk being rude to me at an event I voluntarily participated in is an incredibly mild scenario in comparison, no matter how much it upset me. I knew I had support and options and yet I still chose to stay silent and avoid making a scene, no matter how uncomfortable I was. So what happens to your employees who don’t feel they have support or recourse? They suffer in silence, they leave, sometimes they file suit, and sometimes they share their experience with others. And those other employees who made them feel uncomfortable? Yeah, they are still there, doing the same things, and they may not even know that they are doing anything wrong.
Any company can say it is committed to diversity and an harassment free workplace. You can put it in your values, write policies, and hold mandatory training. But it takes more than that. Your leadership has to model these values every day. They need to understand that diversity means more than just race. They need to be able to empathize with people different than them and be willing to hold their own teams to higher standards of conduct. And most importantly, your employees need to know and feel that they are supported. They need to know they will be treated with dignity and respect. Your culture absolutely needs to reinforce that. Because you can’t always prevent the jerks from making others uncomfortable, but you can make sure they don’t do it again. Unless you never hear about it.