Why we don’t like open conversations around sexual harassment

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. 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 on May 29th. I invited the HR Directors of every company where I have coached women who had experienced sexism or sexual harassment in their companies.  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 organisations 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. Our event on 29 May 2018 will help everyone learn how to deal with sexism and  harassment in the workplace.

3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Board Room Image, Sexism and Sexual Harassment, Workplace
Web | Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn
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.

Leave a Reply

Found that interesting? Learn more about our services
Individual services
Make your dreams a reality with a professional evaluation of your career to date.
more info
Corporate services
The evidence is in. More women in your company can deliver 35% greater financial returns. (Catalyst)
more info
Upcoming events
Currently we don't have upcoming events
Download and listen free podcasts
How to get Noticed by Head Hunters and Recruiters
Free Download

In this power coaching podcast, we’re going to tackle one of the questions asked multiple times a week by active job seekers and passive candidates.

How can I get noticed by head hunters and recruiters and connect with them?

In this short power coaching podcast Dorothy Dalton shares some tips and tricks to make sure that you are always on the radar of the recruitment and search specialists who can be most helpful to you. With extensive experience in executive search and corporate HR Dorothy has placed, coached and trained thousands of men and women to career success. As a career coach she has a deep understanding of the job search market and what job seekers need to do to position themselves to they are easily found.

As CEO of 3Plus she also has deep experience of the challenges women face in the workplace. Sadly because women tend not to create career strategies they can be vulnerable when it comes to dealing with change. Regular transitions become career crises. In this short session you will learn some simple tips and tricks to make sure you are on the radar of key recruitment specialists in your sector, geography or function.  It’s not rocket science.





One of the most puzzling things about working in executive search is that people and I say this reluctantly particularly women fail to plan ahead. You’ve heard me say before that only 5% of women have a career strategy. This means that they are not prepared for any emergencies until they become a crisis.


Goal setting tips to boost your career
Free Download

The happiest people are those that really love their jobs. Those that don’t, dread Sunday nights and the upcoming work week. So how do you get to a place where you look forward to a new week of doing what satisfies you? You’ll have to either learn to love your current role, or make a commitment to pursue your dream job. Use these goal setting tips to help you get to where you want to be.

Some women choose the latter, and to do so you’ll have to set career goals to get where you want to be. So make sure you have a detailed plan on how to land a job that you will tick all the boxes.

The majority of women choose to stay in their own organizations and even then you still need to have goals, not just KPis set by your manager. But even if you do see your career developing within your current business it’s still important to set goals.

Many women struggle with career planning and creating a career strategy which can lead to problems. This makes them vulnerable to and sort of challenge which can moprh into a full blown career crisis. Some simple steps to plan and prepare can help avoid this.

Take a look at these goal setting tips to help boost your career and set you on the right path.

Lewis Carroll  said

If you don’t know where you are going any road will get you there.”

Research shows that only about 5% of women create career goals and a career strategy. This can have a negative impact on your career progression. It means you are reactive not proactive and career glitches can morph into full blown crises. It puts women at a clear disadvantage to men.

Learn these simple goal setting tips to boost your career and protect and prepare you for all eventualities. If these goal setting tips make you think that you could use some further help,  contact us immediately.


When Does Female Rivalry Turn into Sabotage
Free Download

There’s a lot of stuff written on social media about  female rivalry and competition between women. Some of it makes sense and some of it is confusing. Organizations are pyramids with fewer roles at the top than at the bottom. It is inevitable that at some level, as more and more women are in the talent pipeline, at some point they will be in competition with other women.

Many would say that women aren’t competitive. I would suggest re-framing that. I think it’s more accurate to say they are not as competitive in the workplace as men. We have also been made to feel guilty about being competitive. We need to get over that.  Here are the reasons:

  1. The male nature of corporate culture makes it a disincentive to compete
  2. Women don’t want to compete because  prescribed male goals are not attractive enough for them. “Work 14 hour days, not see my partner or family … get sick.. die..no thanks.. I’ll pass”
  3. Women don’t know how to compete in the workplace. They are new arrivals on the corporate competition scene and lack practise.
  4. Women experience gender blow back when they do compete, from both men and women
  5. Women have been raised to think that competing with other women is not empowering them. As more women enter the talent pipeline that is just nonsense.

Learn some insights from Annabel Kaye, Employment Law Expert about how it’s OK to be competitive and the danger zone when it can turn into sabotage. Understand the benefits of mutual support and how all women can profit from having strong strategic allies, role models and mentors.






The importance of Hard Talk
Free Download

Dawn Metcalfe, author of Managing the Matrix and Hard Talk, shares with us  tips to achieve the lasting communication skills needed to tackle the difficult conversations we encounter in the workplace. Hard Talk answers the big questions like:

  • How do I manage a boss who insists on micro-managing me?
  • How do I let a high performer know that they are not getting the promotion he wants?
  • What can I do about a direct report who doesn’t show me respect?
  • How do I tell my boss that despite all efforts our deadline on an important deliverable will be missed?

In this podcast, Dawn Metcalfe will give us an overview to handle challenging scenarios to empower you with the skills needed to ensure you have these conversations in the best way and generate the best outcome. Make your workplace and your professional experience more fruitful and less fraught by learning the importance of Hard Talk.