Reflections on Diversity and Harassment

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It seems like the harassment, prejudice and bias pendulum has swung the other way and it is time for organizations to consider intensifying a review of policies and awareness training. It seems about every 5 years or so, just about the time we think we are making progress, a number of troubling and costly events show up in the journals and media.

Basically, there are two reasons to engage in these activities. One is because many forms of discrimination and harassment are against the law and the second, more noble and appropriate reason, is that it is the right thing to do. And, not just because it is moral, but because research shows time and time again that diverse groups come up with better ideas, provide better customer service, and solve problems more effectively. Groups that accept each other and work with each other bring higher numbers to the bottom-line.

Sexual Harassment is probably the most common type of discrimination, but other areas are also protected, some of which may include age, race, religion, disabilities, national origin, workers’ compensation, veteran’s status, whistle blowing, and sexual orientation (check your state laws to determine if any of these are excluded by law). But again, you focus on preventing harassment, including threats of violence*, prejudice, and bias in the workplace because it is the right business decision.

I sometimes get comments in training where individuals challenge the curriculum as preventing free speech. I explain that people can feel or think anything or behave anyway they want to at home. For example, to pick on men for a moment, a man can believe a woman should be barefoot, pregnant and stay at home, but the moment he expresses those thoughts, beliefs or behaviors in any way that violates the company policy, we have a problem and it is a workplace problem. The organization has the right and responsibility to intervene and put a quick stop to the behavior. I also try to help people understand that this intervention is always about the organization’s policy and not the individual. Years ago, after an awareness training, I had a gentleman come up to me and ask this question.

“I supervise about seven guys in a rural plant and we don’t have any women working there right now. But, we are likely to get some any day. And, we do have a sexual harassment policy. My guys do have the calendars of scantily clothed women and some even have pictures of naked women. Should I have them take them down now or should I wait until we have our first woman come on board?”

This question was asked with sincerity and honesty. I told him to have his guys take the calendars and pictures down right away and to explain that it was against company policy to have that type of material in the workplace.

Never, never, never should a change like this be because we are “getting a woman coming on board” or “We need to make this change because we have a Black person coming to work in the department or a disabled person or a vet or any other difference issue.” It should always be because the organization has a policy against it. The person should never be presented as the reason all of “us” have to change.

My wife has a saying that I like: “It is our differences that make us equal.” She actually has a few saying I like. Another one is: “Living in the past is old fashioned.”

If you wait until the person comes on board, they will be the problem, no matter what else might be said. Remember behavior speaks louder than words. Communication experts tell us that only 7% of a message comes from the words; 38% comes from tone of voice and 55% from non-verbal behaviors.

I’ll end with this story. After a seminar, I had a man come up to me and say, “You know, I used to feel like a lot of the guys here expressed, ‘Why should women be coming into our workplace?’ Why do we have to change? We razz each other—they should have to be able to take a razzing too’ (to be clear, there is a major difference between a good intention razzing and harassment—we’ll get to this next time).

He went on to tell what I thought was the important and revealing part of the story. He stated, “I used to think that until my daughter went into the workplace. And, she was coming home each and every night in tears because her boss was relentlessly threatening her with sexual jokes, innuendos, and outright pressure to go to bed with him or lose her job.

“She would tell me things like, ‘Dad, I have two children to feed. I need this job. What should I do?’

“At that point, my response was, ‘Someone in that organization ought to do something. Don’t they care? Don’t they have an harassment policy. It should not be allowed to go on. I wanted to go down there and kick his ass. But, my daughter wouldn’t let me.’”

He continued, “To make a long story short, what happened was that she quit, after lots of stress and tears (and a cut in pay), and got another job somewhere else. But, what I really realized is that if it had been a man, people would have been up in arms. But, a woman shouldn’t be made to find a job elsewhere to feed her family either. Man or Woman, White or Black, Native American or Non-native, Vet or not, it isn’t right. Now-a-days, I do everything I can to promote diversity in my company. It is weird, but when I put it in these terms a lot of the guys I work with, especially the ones that have daughters, suddenly get it.”

*Threats of violence are often best handled by law enforcement, but this should be clearly stated in your policy—zero tolerance.