We Have a Big Problem

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s long history of harassing and assaulting women and the many women sharing their own stories of assault and harassment have shown that such behavior in the workplace is an epidemic. It is not just a problem that can be attributed to Weinstein and a few other men in power. The sheer number of women telling their own stories is cause for alarm. The pervasiveness of harassment seems to be one of the most well-known secrets of the modern workplace.

Just How Common is the Problem?

In the last few days, the #metoo hashtag has been trending on social media. Countless women have shared their own stories. But many of us did not need social media to confirm what we already knew: harassment is a huge problem in the workplace, even in the 21st century. I do not know any woman who does not have a story of workplace harassment, and I think if you started asking around, you would realize the same thing about the women you know.

One example from my own life comes from a time I was reviewing resumes with a man in upper management. We were sitting close because we were both looking at my computer screen. We were scrolling through the resumes when I suddenly felt his hand resting on my thigh. Not wanting to make a scene, I did not say anything. I shifted in my seat to communicate silently that I was uncomfortable, and the man removed his hand. I was working in HR at the time, and I did not speak up. I let it go because I convinced myself that I did not want to cause trouble. I knew that complaining would have led to an investigation and a possible written warning for the man involved. This was someone I had to interact with regularly, and I feared that it would make future interactions awkward and uncomfortable. Even though in every new employee orientation I led I told new hires to speak up if they experience or witness harassment, I remained silent.

Why is it so Hard to Speak up?

So, why do people who experience harassment remain silent? Why did someone like me—someone who investigated harassment claims as part of her job—not speak up? It is the fear of not being believed. With so many situations like mine and the countless other stories women have been sharing recently, the only evidence is one person’s word against another. Rarely is there security video, a witness or some other proverbial smoking gun that corroborates someone’s version of events. No one wants to come forward with a story of harassment, only to face countless questions that challenge the validity of their claim.

In addition, there is also the sense of not wanting to cause conflict. We fear that we might upset our harasser. I know I did. But when it comes down to it, this is ridiculous. The victim of harassment is not to blame for what happened, so she should not face that burden. Unfortunately though, this is often what happens. It is bad enough that it keeps many silent. That is why it is so important that we all start sharing our stories now. It does not have to be on social media; it can be with one close friend. Even the small conversations are a reminder that we are not alone in having experienced this. There is a community of people ready to believe our stories and offer support. We also need to believe and support each other.

What Can HR Do?

Harassment investigations have always been one of the most challenging parts of my job as an HR professional. As I mentioned before, it often comes down to one person’s word against another. Management is putting on the pressure to find solid confirmation before signing off on major disciplinary action or termination. It becomes even more challenging when the accused is someone in upper management or a longtime or key employee. I have been in situations where I recommended termination in such cases, only to have upper management decide on a warning because they did not want to lose someone the deemed to betoo important to fire. Sadly, a warning does little to stem the behavior in such cases.

We need to start by taking claims of harassment seriously. I have seen some of my HR colleagues immediately jump to finding ways to say the behavior was not harassment. They try to explain it away as a misunderstanding. This is why employees do not come forward to talk about harassment. It takes tremendous bravery to walk into HR and tell the story of experiencing harassment. When the result of that is a dismissive HR person, it makes bringing forward such complaints feel pointless—especially when the employee still has to face the harasser on a regular basis.

We also need to take harassment prevention training seriously. It is common practice these days to do online training that employees can passively participate in. This is not enough. We need to redesign our harassment prevention training so that we can have real discussion about this problem. Someone like Weinstein should not have been allowed to continue for that many years when his bad behavior was well known. There are countless other Weinsteins out there in many other industries. This is not just a problem in the entertainment industry. It is everywhere.

As I have argued on this blog before, we need to start addressing consent and respect in schools. These are values that should be instilled in people in childhood. Any of my HR colleagues who have sat in a room full of adults and trained them on preventing workplace harassment knows that it can be impossible to try to change the minds of those who do not acknowledge that harassment is a workplace problem. These are the people who sit in a training and say things like, “Well, what if I was just being friendly, and the woman misunderstood it and cries harassment?” If the first time we are talking about harassment prevention is when people reach adulthood, it can be extremely difficult to do years of normalizing harassing behavior. Many of the stories I have heard, especially in the last few days, are very clearly inappropriate and go far beyond what any reasonable person would consider a misunderstanding. Putting your hand on a coworker's thigh, for example, is never appropriate in the workplace.

Those of us who work in HR also need to speak up. When we know there is someone in upper management with a well-known reputation for harassing employees, say something. When the powers that be try to dismiss such claims, fight back. Enlist others in power to join you in that fight. Yes, there is risk, but if we remain silent, we are complicit. It is going to take HR professionals and those in power to say, “Enough!” Change needs to happen from the top.

The Challenge Ahead

As more information on Weinstein comes out, we need to keep reminding ourselves that his story is not an anomaly. While his story may be unusual in that it is so high profile and involves a number of famous victims, it is common. We live in a country that elected a president who has a well-documented history of inappropriate behavior toward women. Not only was there the infamous Access Hollywood tape, but he is known for walking into the changing room at a pageant he owned where young women were in various states of dress as they prepared to take the stage. In a culture that is fine with such a man being president, it is clear we have a lot of work to do.

For anyone in a position of power at a company, it is imperative that we speak up. Those in leadership positions must call out bad behavior and take the appropriate disciplinary action, even if it means firing a longtime manager or someone who is seen as an asset to the company. If someone harasses employees, are they really an asset? For each complaint of harassment we dismiss or ignore, it means that there is the potential that more people will be harassed.