As a female who was born in the 60’s and entered the workforce in the 80’s (pre Anita Hill—if you don’t know who she is, google it); I’ve seen both extremes of the #MeToo movement, and have my own #MeToo stories.
I think most men know the definition of sexual assault. What is much murkier is workplace language and behavior. In fact, I’ve had a few white, male clients who clearly don’t understand what all of the hubbub is about. They quickly follow up with something like “no one can take a joke anymore.”
So, as a public service, I’m going to spell things out. I want every leader to stay 100 feet away from any potential #MeToo issue. Keep in mind, I’m taking an extreme view here for LEADERS who want to be far above reproach and never land in the office of HR.
Three things Leaders should never do.
- There should be no discussion, joke, inference or suggestion about anything sexual in the workplace. Period. When I say sexual, I’m including anything related to LGBTQ as well. As a leader, you need to stay miles above this type of discussion, no matter who is in the room. If you don’t want it replayed on the 6 o’clock news, don’t do it.
- Like kindergarten, always keep your hands to yourself. Don’t touch anyone unless it’s an appropriate handshake. I know there are a lot of women who are ‘huggers’, but as leaders you need to set the tone. If you want to be beyond reproach, you should also set a rule of no ‘hugging’ at the workplace. (There may still be room for comforting someone who just found out their mother or father died, but tread very carefully).
In addition, don’t ask for physical contact either. If you need a hug that badly, get it from a relative, your dog or a friend. Don’t ask for it at work. It can be misinterpreted too many ways.
- Don’t ever make a comment, joke, inference or suggestion related to religious beliefs, race or citizenship. Just don’t.
I realize this seems to suggest that we be very dry and unemotional as leaders at work. But I think we need to go to this extreme for now. It will take some time before the perceived oppressors can understand why others may feel oppressed.
Think about it this way. If you woke up every day of your life and were told
‘You are less than’
in some way, how would that affect you? If you heard this repeatedly, no matter what situation you were in, or who you were interacting with, how would it affect your beliefs?
That’s what women, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-Christians experience every day of their lives in our predominantly white, straight, Christian, male world.
Jokes, suggestions, inferences, etc. all contribute to sending the ‘less than’ message over and over again.
For example, as soon as an off color ‘sexual’ topic is raised in a co-ed work environment, you run a risk of making women feel marginalized. They may feel that they are only seen as a sexual object, instead of as an intelligent contributor. You may be providing them with a moment on the #MeToo spectrum.
On the other side
As a woman who has felt marginalized at times, I know it can feel so unfair that we have to speak up and teach others what’s offensive and what’s not. However, I honestly believe in most cases the perpetrators are oblivious (rightly or wrongly). Sometimes it’s because no one has ever complained before and perhaps they’ve never been taught.
I’ve had male clients who believed there was never any forewarning about their behavior, yet they suddenly found themselves in a meeting with their supervisor and HR to discuss it.
It is our job as humans to teach people how they can operate around us, and how they can treat us. It’s called ‘Setting Boundaries’. In my experience, when I’ve shared my issues with the offending party, they were very appreciative and totally clueless of the impact of their behavior. Obviously I’m not talking about sexual assault here, but rather marginalizing behavior.
I’m suggesting that we all commit to speaking up and letting others know when what they’ve said is inappropriate. We all need to be part of the change we want to see in the world.