When You See Something, Say Something

I had the opportunity and privilege to hear Gretchen Carlson, author of Be Fierce, speak in early February on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. It was a room full of Human Resource professionals. Gretchen apprised us of the fact that what we currently are doing is not moving the needle on workplace harassment. All the training and policies in the world are not having an impact on workplace harassment. In fact, of the one in three women who are harassed in the workplace, only about 29% ever even report it. So the majority of the victims keep it to themselves. They are afraid of retaliation and, worse, being fired.


Carlson pointed out that victims fall silent and feel helpless. There is this corporate attitude that “we have no reports of any harassment.” This is a delusion. The real reason people don’t report it is that they don’t feel safe and/or they feel like it’s their fault. One of the big takeaways is that we don’t address the bystanders. The guys in the boardroom who don’t step up and shut down the offenders in the room are responsible. Most of the time, this means a man stepping up since 94% of the CEOs are men. It all starts with speaking up. When you see something; say something.

I did some further research after this talk and came up with some points to share that tie in with Gretchen’s talk:

Let your body speak.  As written at the University of Exeter, “Remember, you don’t have to speak to communicate. Sometimes a disapproving look can be far more powerful than words.” This is an easier gateway to doing something without actually speaking up. I think this is great advice if you are in an unfamiliar situation or group. It also might be helpful if you’re dealing with a larger group. If someone is making a joke at someone else’s expense, go silent and let your body speak your disapproval.

Don’t add fuel. I find that typically the reason why women (the usual victim) don’t speak up is because the response from the group was positive; as in everyone laughed when Bob said I was sexy. The “group think” is that if everyone laughed, everyone is in on the joke. Everyone is in agreement. The peer pressure makes you laugh at the joke. In reality, laughing is only adding fuel to the fire. Bob is going to continue because it elicited a laugh from “everyone”. Don’t be everyone. Don’t laugh. Do no harm. Don’t add fuel to the fire.

Bring empathy. Ironically, the empathy is for the harasser. As written at Exeter, empathy prevents someone from distancing themselves from the impact of their actions. So “I hope no one ever talks about you like that” is a great approach. It also prevents the harasser from dehumanizing their targets as well. “What if someone said your girlfriend deserved to be raped, or called your mother a slut?” This is an interesting switch. Instead of coming to the defense of the victim, create empathy in the harasser.

Be a friend. This bolsters your friendship and keeps the harasser from being put on the defensive. I would recommend doing this in private. As written at Exeter, “Hey, Dave. As your friend, I’ve got to tell you that your tee-shirt isn’t doing you any favours, it’s killing your rep with the ladies. Do yourself a favour and don’t wear it again – chuck it out.” I think if you did this in private you would be less likely to get a defensive response. Be a friend and instruct them on their behavior.

Be a distraction. I can remember when my kids were toddlers. If they started to whine or misbehave, I would pick them up and start looking at pictures on the walls. “Oh, look at that pretty tree. I wonder where that tree is. Do you like the tree?” It would almost immediately calm them down. So, interrupt your harassing co-worker with, “Hey Bob, do you know when the budget meeting is?” “How long is the drive to the airport?” Again, a redirect is less likely to get a defensive reaction.

Bystander training. The biggest takeaway from the conference with Carlson, was to start with the top folks in your organization and let them know that the culture starts with them.  Tolerance for misbehaving is in the boardroom. Talk to your CEO and President and let them know that they need to put their foot down when that sexist email is forwarded to them or if they tolerate the racist jokes of their managers. Bystanders, especially those in power, need to step up and speak up.

It starts with you. It starts with each and every one of us. We need to speak up. Whether privately with the offender or with body language or silence or checking in with the victim to find out how you can help. Be careful how you use slang terms that are pejorative of a race, gender or religious group. I know I used to refer to my freckled easily burned skin as “cheap Irish skin.” This belittles me and an entire country and its descendants. Yes, I am part Irish but I don’t get to judge the entire country with less than valuable skin. Be the solution. Not the problem.

Harassment and its collateral damage needs to be addressed by the organization. These suggestions are to help nudge the culture of an organization so that a respectful workplace can be created and maintained. It can’t be addressed by one victim or one Human Resource professional. It takes a village.

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