In my profession, we have a saying: "People don't leave companies, they leave bosses." Whenever I say this to someone in business, they always get it immediately. That's because they have seen it themselves. One in five people who leave their jobs voluntarily do so because they find the behavior of their supervisors unacceptable.
High on the list of those behaviors is unwanted attention, particularly of a sexual kind. It doesn't have to be the boss who is actually giving an employee unwanted attention. If they are ignoring it, that can be equally as problematic to the person experiencing it.
When I was courting my first wife, she was in medical school. I'm diabetic, and she knew that low blood sugar could trigger an elevated heartbeat, perspiration, blurred vision, and shaking. She had seen this effect demonstrated in one of her classes.
Yet she teased me about my urgency to get something to eat when my blood sugar dropped. It wasn't until she saw me really struggle a few times that she finally had an ''Aha!" moment and realized that the attention she was giving me for my condition was compounding the problem.
I tell you this story because it's a neutral way to explain so much of the unwanted sexual attention that people experience in corporate life. Just like diabetes, we know what it is, we know it happens, we know what we're supposed to do if it happens, and so on.
But until we witness first-hand how it affects someone to receive unwanted sexual attention, we may never appreciate how emotionally distressing it is.
This is what makes the #MeToo movement so impactful. Tarana Burke, an activist from Harlem, launched the movement a decade ago in response to observing how powerless underprivileged women were when sexually abused.
Her actions turned into a movement as men and women decided to speak up about unwanted sexual attention. People were strongly affected to the point that they could no longer do nothing, and that started a conversation that grew into a movement.
This same process can work with every form of unwanted attention, whether it's racial, ethnic, sexual, social or religious. It's up to all of us to be part of the process when we have the chance, because we need to make our workplaces emotionally safe for everyone. The success of our teams and our companies depends on this, because emotional safety is fundamental to working environments that truly succeed, not just for the owners or shareholders but for the people who work there.
Unfortunately, many people say they don't know how to respond when
they see unwanted attention at work, particularly when it's sexual in nature.
They don't like what's happening, but they feel unempowered to do anything. So they don't speak up. That is the opposite of emotional safety, the opposite of a healthy workplace.
So let's look at how to change at least this one vital aspect of unwanted attention: creating a work environment where it does not continue to take place, and it's not tolerated if it does.
Before we dig in, please remember this qualification: the following is not legal advice, nor advice to work outside of your organization's rules and procedures for things such as alleged sexual harassment. My focus is evolving the workplace emotionally toward an environment where unwanted attention does not even arise. When it does arise, you should work within the legal and administrative structures you have to the extent they are available to you.
Remember also that you don't have to be either the giver or receiver of unwanted attention to be affected by it. That behavior affects everyone to the extent that it goes on without anyone doing anything about it.
So if you witness it, you are involved at some level already. For your own good and for the good of everyone around you, don't do nothing. In the rest of this post, we'll look at what you can and should do.
So let's imagine that someone in your work environment is getting unwanted attention. It might be casual comments about physical appearance, off-color jokes, even silent gestures. The behavior might be crassly obvious or deviously subtle.
These distinctions don't matter, because your feelings are now activated. So the first step is to consciously acknowledge those feelings. Don't minimize them. If you feel uncomfortable with something that you and others have witnessed, I guarantee you that other people are feeling the same way.
So trust and acknowledge that. You are not alone.
The second step is to validate that you're not alone. Talk with others who saw what you saw. Ask them "Did I really see what I think I saw?"
''Am I over-reacting?" "Did I misinterpret the joke?" Ask these questions in an inquiring way, and don't implicitly blame or involve the people you're validating with.
If you ask, "Weren't you bothered by what this person did?" that could be taken as a judgment or accusation. Your goal is not to accuse, it's to verify your own experience.
It is important to do this because it's hard to feel safe in your working environment if you're in a state of what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance." The theory of cognitive dissonance is that when we behave in a way that is inconsistent with our values, we put ourselves into a state of internal conflict.
To resolve the conflict, we need to change either our behavior or our values. If we apply the theory to unwanted attention in the workplace, it goes like this: You know that something happened, and it's something that should be stopped, but the world is behaving as if it didn't happen, and that makes it difficult to for you to act.
Your value is to do something, but addressing a situation is hard when everyone around you is denying that the situation even exists.
This is why you need to get confirmation that the situation does in fact exist. You're not alone. You're not misinterpreting. You witnessed something that should not be taking place. This reduces the cognitive dissonance and opens up room to act in consonance with your values.
Third, be ready for people to validate your experience, but then minimize it in the next breath. You may hear things such as "Yeah, I saw it, but you should just let it go" or "It's not the first time, so don't make a fuss about it."
Many people have become so inured to unwanted attention from authority figures that they now accept it. It has become reality even though it should not be. For these people, witnessing some form of unwanted attention and doing nothing creates little or no cognitive dissonance.
So that's why the next step is offering your colleagues a new option. This is what happened with the #MeToo movement. People who formerly did nothing began to do something. They began to talk among themselves, compare experiences and information, and ultimately they went public with their experience.
That created a context in which many, many other people could present their experience publicly for the first time - because they were not alone. And as we have explored in the blog post entitled "Changing Behavior," changed experience leads to changes in actions.
You can harness this power. If other people witnessed the unwanted attention and validated it to you - even if they caution you to just let it go - ask them this: "Would you be willing to join me in an effort to make a change?"
You're not asking them to initiate anything. You're asking them to join you and use the power of the crowd to effect change. When you take this step, give people time to think it over. Some of them may be afraid of reprisal.
Some may have been subject to harassment themselves and hidden it for a long time. Some may really like the person in question and want to avoid confronting them. Don't pressure anyone. That just makes the situation worse. The way to win people to your cause is to conduct the cause with integrity and respect.
If you've got a group together, the next step is to find a sympathetic leader to be your champion. Every organization has natural leaders that people look up to. Every team has somebody that everybody respects. Initiate a dialogue with that person. The main point to make is that multiple people in the organization are working to make a change for the better of the organization.
It's not punitive. It's necessary. The goal is for your champion to start a dialog higher up in the organization that gets the wheels of turning.
Whenever you initiate these conversations, be sure to appeal to the organization's values, purpose and mission. The person who is giving others unwanted attention needs to know this is not acceptable, and the entire organization needs healing so we can continue to pursue our purpose.
You have come not as a complainer but as a problem-solver seeking support for the solution.
If you are the manager or leader that a group of employees has approached to be their champion, recognize that this is an important moment for your company and your own career.
Be realistic about the evidence that is presented to you, about what you can achieve, and about who you can reach out to or influence. Like those coming to you, you want to keep the organization's values front and center.
This is not your personal fight with someone else. It's a chance to demonstrate commitment to the company values and compliance with the law. (These are things everyone should do all the time, but doing them in a sensitive situation shows courage and leadership.)
I'm not going to pretend that this whole process is going to be successful in every situation. At some point you may run into a wall of non-responsiveness and non-support.
The powers that be may circle the wagons and protect the person who needs to be disciplined. If you find yourself in this situation, it's time to ask yourself and your group a couple of questions. One is, "should we escalate this outside the organization?" The group of gymnasts who were molested by Larry Nasser at University of Michigan made the decision to escalate because the university wasn't taking steps sufficient to the magnitude of the situation. Your group might make a different decision.
The other question to ask yourself is, "Can I remain at the company under these circumstances?" Because in the end you have to maintain your own integrity, and your own sanity.
Imagine the dissonance of knowing that someone at work is targeting a
co-worker with unwanted sexual attention but the organization is stonewalling, and you're supposed to carry on as if none of this has happened.
The first step in the process was trusting your own feelings and perceptions. If you can't feel emotional safety at this company, you should go somewhere else.
You deserve to work in an environment where you can thrive as a contributor, a collaborator, and a secure human being.