Recently, Time magazine named its Person (more accurately People) of the Year as the Silence Breakers -- the people that came forward with their stories of sexual harassment and assault. The veil has lifted, and finally, sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault are becoming more talked about – coming out of the shadows to be addressed and discussed.
When most people think about the #metoo movement and the Silence Breakers, they think about Hollywood, the media, and politics. I, however, would like to also call out that any client-facing, sales-oriented, people/talent-related industries and businesses are a huge part of the problem, and doing little beyond the "mandatory" annual 2D anti-harassment training to change the dynamic. Think about Staffing, Contingent Labor, HR, Human Capital, and Consulting as the other industries that also must take a hard look at their culture and the way they operate. Many of these industries/companies are fairly “huggy,” touchy-feely, relational-based organizations rooted in sales and production. These tend to have a lot of personal interaction in very relaxed, social, and edgy environments. Unprofessional events like conferences with after parties and outings to clubs make it hard to discern where the line is between professional and relational sales approaches, including potentially harmless flirting, which is encouraged both implicitly and explicitly at times. The mixed messages and the idea of sales/revenue/growth and production above all else blur the line before it’s ever approached or crossed.
What is the answer? Where do you begin in addressing this and empowering your teams and yourselves? DO NOT wait for the storm to come knocking on your door, act before it’s too late.
Swing and a Miss
While corporations may do a lot in leading the charge to change the way they view and deal with sexual harassment, both internally and externally; individuals need to be trained and equipped to handle themselves in those types of invasive and uncomfortable situations. Let me give you an example from my own past. I was heading to a meeting with my client, his team, and my team of strategic leaders. When we met up, my client, a CEO, picked me up, hugged me a little too hard, and swung me around in front of my team, their #1 competitor, and 2 of his own executive team members. A, in my opinion, completely inappropriate response to a hug hello. Now, this happened to me later in life but if it had happened to me in my 20s, I would have most likely called it cute and thought, “This CEO really likes me. I must be doing a fantastic job.” In my 30s, I would have done everything in my power to cower out of there, remove myself from the situation, and continue onto the meeting to ensure that we could return to the task at hand so I wouldn’t lose credibility with my team or the CEO’s executive team. As it was, I was in my 40s when this happened, and I was confident enough to say in a loud, firm voice, in front of everyone, “Don’t do that!” I watched his executives raise their heads back up, his competitors walk away as quickly as they could (one of whom texted me later to ask if I was okay), and my own team look embarrassed for me, themselves, and the situation. The CEO immediately let go of me, raised his hands in defense, and said, “I am so sorry.” We then went on to have a good meeting and to this day that CEO is someone I respect and I’m confident, respects me.
There are a couple of points to that story. First, until I was much older and wiser, I didn’t have the tools or the confidence to handle that kind of situation, which is an issue. Second, the CEO didn’t necessarily mean to make me uncomfortable, but he needed to be told that I was.
The not so Suite Life
Another story that I would like to share with you is another one of mine. But in this case, the encounter was worse because the person didn’t stop their behavior after I expressed my discomfort. I was at an industry event and it was not unusual for me to walk through a sea of people I knew, give hugs, and chit-chat. In one of these encounters, a long-standing client, who considered themselves a friend of mine, offered me their suite key in case I wanted to “go up later.” It took several emphatic declinations from me for him to stop. In this case, I had to stand firm and continuously refuse someone who was very deliberately trying to coerce me into something I didn’t want to do. Anyone who has dealt with any form of emotional or physical harassment knows that you start to doubt yourself. I asked myself, “What did I do to lead him on? Did I send the wrong message? Did I act less than professional yet relatable?” It wore down my confidence.
Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire: STOP, DROP, AND ROLL
And these are just two examples, scenarios may get much worse, so it is important to train yourself and your employees on how to handle the various types of misconduct and harassment that may occur. Given the endless shades of gray, interpretations, mixed feelings, and reactions to these complex situations, and as part of my Confidence360 anti-harassment training, I’m developing the T.S.E. system, inspired by what we’re all taught at a young age in terms of getting out safe in case there’s a fire:
1. Trust but Verify
2. Speak Your Truth
3. Escalate and Get Help (before the line is crossed)
The first part of the system is Trust but Verify. As demonstrated in my first example, everyone’s line is different, and some people may make you feel uncomfortable without realizing what they are doing. Give them the benefit of the doubt, try and move locations, change the subject, indicate that you’re not comfortable with the situation and clarify what they are doing or saying- do they really mean it the way you’re reading it? If they still push harder, move to the second step, Speak Your Truth. Hit it head on and make it clear that you do not feel safe or comfortable. If it continues and is about to cross YOUR line then move on to step 3, Escalate and Get Help, FAST. This may not mean going to HR or your manager. If you’re on a call, get an executive on the line. If you’re a woman, try and bring a man into the discussion, and vice versa. Drastically change the situation to the point where the harassment does not continue. And if it escalates to the point that the company needs to get involved and an employee, client, or partner may be fired, the company’s zero-tolerance line is the black and white. If it gets crossed, no amount of explaining or bargaining should shift that. It is my hope and ultimately mission that people start empowering themselves by using this method to make sure that they are equipped to handle these situations.
Bystanders and Offenders, Listen Up!
And this is not only for the offended in these situations, it is for the bystander, if there is one, and the offender. As the bystander, if you see it, feel it, sense it, or think it, say it directly or get help from an expert who will handle it: an Executive, HR Leader, or even a parent. And this is not only for the workplace, if you’re seeing something occur with your kids and their friends and it feels off to you, such as possible bullying or harassment of any kind (the workplace and personal life are the same when it comes to our right to live without misconduct or harassment of any kind), say something! You’re part of the dynamic and have the ability to empower the potential victim. You have a voice too and, to quote my husband, it is never too early to do the right thing (too late is TOO LATE). If you’re walking around keeping a secret about something you’ve done, seen, or experienced- the time is now to speak your truth.
Now, I also want to talk to the (possible) offenders. If you have ever felt you crossed the line or realize that you may be currently crossing the line, check yourself and take a moral inventory. Keep in mind the power that you hold (position, money, notoriety) over the people you come into contact with and remember that the power you wield is either empowering or detrimental. Make the right choice here and now. If you don’t know how to come forward, find help, seek counsel, talk to a partner or spouse…tell someone that you’re willing to come forward; the truth shall set you free.
After Down, Comes Up…
Finally, I want to leave you all with something positive. I am trying to build a self-empowered model with tools, methods, and mindset shifts in a corporate-accepted way. Here are my early results from working with teams and individuals over many years, try them on, and let me know how they fit! 5 keys to self-empowerment to take with you in your pocket, wherever you go, and always:
1. Zero Tolerance: Your company HAS your back (and if it doesn’t, it is time to change that, move out to move up).
2. Role Play & Practice: Get into the mindset and stay there (practice with someone you trust or on your own, take a self-defense class, etc.).
3. Stop Harassment before it starts: Conduct yourself in a professional but relatable way and expect the same.
4. Address harassment head-on: Stop is Stop, and No is No. 5. Escalate and get help fast BEFORE things cross the line: Your personal line is black and white. No one has the right to tell you when to be uncomfortable.
Also, if you’ve experienced situations that ended positively and may help someone else (if you are comfortable, of course), please share what worked in the comments below. Let’s bring something positive out of all the ugliness and start to change the way we feel about, and therefore deal with, these wildly difficult and personal situations. The veil has lifted, if you’re still wearing yours, join me in taking it off.