Why we don’t like open conversations around sexual harassment

by | Mar 20, 2018

Sexual harassment is a difficult topic we need to discuss

Admitting your company needs to start a conversation about sexual harassment is the first step to improving a toxic culture.

I have attempted to start conversations on the highly charged topic of sexual harassment and met truthfully with very mixed results. Over the years I have worked with, and discussed the issue of the way women are treated in the workplace, with probably hundreds of women. We all know that the problem is endemic in our organisations. Yet despite the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements, where celebrities are speaking up and putting their voices behind the problem, it seems more difficult for the average woman to come forward. It is then even harder for business leaders to talk about it.

Sexual harassment

Even though it’s a professional requirement and legal obligation, there is also a reluctance on the part of HR to recognise there could be a problem within their organisations.  Worse still, HR are emerging as being untrustworthy and even colluding in any cover ups. Recently I supported Fortis BNParisbas, a Belgian bank with 10000 employees, in a training they gave at the JUMP Forum. It was entitled “Silence can seriously damage your health.” This referenced their initiative to implement a company-wide conscious raising programme on sexual and moral harassment. They acknowledged the damage a failure to step up and address the problems can cause. It not only creates a toxic culture of collusion, but also has far-reaching implications on the physical and emotional well-being of the target.

Sexism is an example of an unconscious bias that we don't always see clearly. 3Plus can help your company see the unclear with our workshop on Managing Unconscious Bias.

Why HR won't respond

I held a highly successful workshop in Brussels in May. I invited the HR Directors of every company where I have coached women who had experienced sexism or sexual harassment in their companies. The gender split was 60:40 women to men. The response was zero to minimal.

So what does this mean?

  • My invitation went to spam. Always a possibility.
  • They don’t like me. Ditto? ...Naah!
  • They feel uncomfortable talking about it - I get it. Difficult conversations are never easy, particularly when it is around the imbalance and then abuse of power.
  • It is so deeply embedded in the culture that people don’t recognise it and genuinely believe it’s not part of their own business. I understand that too. It means being finely tuned to what’s going on and reading between the lines, which is challenging. We all have to recognise and deal with our own unconscious biases.
  • They are removed from the pain points. Let’s be direct. The target demographic for sexual harassment tends to be younger and therefore more junior women. Although sexism is rife at every level, senior women are less likely to experience sexual harassment. It’s an age thing. Men, and especially women, leaders need to go down to junior levels and find out what is really going on in the trenches.

There seems to be a view that if incidents are not reported there is no problem. Wrong!

Leadership and perception

Currently initiatives are being driven by the media and celebrity intervention. The lack of HR input adds to the confusion. It contributes to the ideas of many that HR is part of the culture of enablement, and therefore the problem. Every leadership team should by now have had a frank dialogue, no matter how difficult, about sexual harassment as it relates to their company culture. Every HR professional should be raising the issue with their leadership. If organizations are not open about a policy of zero tolerance on these issues, it will their impact employer brand.

What is emerging is a wide range of responses to inappropriate behaviour, sexism and harassment. YouGov research identified generational differences. Older women are more resistant to bad or inappropriate behaviour than younger generations. Customised perception plays a key role. “Boys banter” to one woman is highly offensive and disturbing to another. Their interpretation becomes their reality, even though the perpetrator maybe unaware of the nature or extent of the offence.

If in doubt, initiate a dialogue

It’s important that organizations not only make clear their zero tolerance policy, but also run training initiatives to raise awareness and consciousness. Policies on their own have little impact if those involved as bystanders and targets have no strategies for dealing with instances as they arise. They might also be oblivious to the impact. It’s only through changes to daily behaviour that a culture will shift. If there is doubt about any instance then there should be a candid discussion around that uncertainty. Is it or isn’t it is enough to initiate a dialogue?

It is only by having difficult conversations on the topic that emotional intelligence and empathy can be learned and fully understood. Then company culture will change.

Make the change your company needs. Learn how to deal with sexism and  harassment in the workplace. Contact us now.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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