How HR Can Stop #MeToo from Becoming #MeThree or #MeFour
Why our practice needs to step up, or step out.
(Editorial Note: This blog is being written and published as events surrounding Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation unfold. It is in no way a commentary on the eventual outcomes, but rather, a reflection on social and workplace issues regarding diversity and inclusion.)
Watching what can only be described as the excruciatingly painful “he-said-she-said” Kavanaugh hearing has taken many of us back to a time when we were made to feel far less-than-equal to our male peers. How many subtle ways there are to undercut authority and undermine the opinion of a woman!
Sure, not every single instance has to do with being a woman. But, unfortunately, the most damaging for me were.
When #MeToo Meant Joining the “Boys’ Club”
Those of us who consider ourselves “badass” women are often the only girl in the room. We are “too tough” to make a stink when sexist bullshit is being thrown around—perhaps because we’re so proud of finally being invited to the “boys’ club” to actually say anything.
I am sorry to admit that some of the damage I have done to myself—and other women—came in these exact circumstances. It is like death by 1,000 little cuts: First, there’s a “test comment” you let fly. Then, a direct shot you find yourself deflecting.
In no way does that show we are strong, much less badass. Instead, it proves our complacency. Had my daughters been in those meetings, I would have stood up for them. I just couldn’t do it for myself. That type of silence is rarely done with ill intent. But it’s seriously damaging in the long run.
It’s time we tough chicks start pulling our own weight and speaking up. We need to speak up to educate, to show strength. And most certainly, to take a stand that this is the bullshit that can bring a company to its knees.
When we finally get invited into the boardroom, we must start being honest—even if it means we’re eventually asked to leave.
The Practice of Pacifying Includes #Me, Too...
I have been told at least a hundred times in my People/HR career to look the other way when there’s even the hint of a problem with an employee because, ‘He’s the best sales guy,’ ‘He brings in the numbers,’ ‘He has critical client relationships.’
It’s nauseating. Yet, I’ve complied. HR is an unfortunate accomplice to perpetuating this behavior—made worse by the trite expectation that every infraction is going to result in (ugh!) more sexual harassment training. So, we continue to stand by and DO NOTHING.
Worse, in many instances, the women who lodge complaints are terrified of being identified. And, much like the duality of our justice system, silence means it didn’t happen. It’s impossible to make a case without any evidence.
I’m embarrassed to say that, early on, without life experience to give me the confidence to do what I believed was right, I (usually) did what I was told. But as my career matured, I became much more vocal about my disgust for sexist, racist, ageist harassment. Today, this perspective is the lens through which I judge any organizations I believe I can support. Are they listening to their workforce—and responding appropriately? It sounds easy, but, clearly, it’s not.
Systematic Change Starts Now
We ALL have to start acting differently. This is a call for a systematic change in how organizations are built—and how they uphold their core values.
How can the connection across levels, divisions, businesses and specialties within organizations create a safe environment for all minorities to express their concerns about harassment or even the scent of potential harassment? HOW can your People, or HR, department behave differently? HOW can we foster leadership that is intolerant of discriminatory behavior?
How can we build companies in which this behavior never unacceptable—including erasing even the subtle feeling that an individual isn’t comfortable to share their thoughts and opinions?
#NoMoreMeToo or #MeThree or #MeFour
In working with organizations and leaders over the past 20 years—often in that boardroom as part of the boys’ club—here are things I suggest we do for our companies RIGHT NOW.
1. Establish and Live a Value of Inclusion: Diversity has been the first step for organizations to ensure the workforce resembles our society. But this work is far from done, because we now need create inclusion.
I won’t recite the numbers on the lack of inclusion on boards and within the C-Suite. But I will ask: How many organizations provide mentorship, cross-functionally, that allows for a diverse employee base to have true connection with those who have more influence and power in the company?
Fostering these relationships through mechanisms such as wellness, mentoring programs, skip-level meetings, and more allow for more humans to connect on a more human level. Learning someone else’s story changes perspective on both sides, and this can only happen by fostering more connection. This connection is what levels the playing field for all employees.
2. Ask, Then LISTEN: Pulse-survey mechanisms are critical in organizations to help management identify potential bottlenecks and problems before they cause business roadblocks. If used and nurtured correctly, these mechanisms can provide early insight into areas of the organization that aren’t often heard from. Anonymity, while polling certain data for questions, gives management more insight, while giving employees a safe place to be heard.
3. Expose All Bias: Conscious, Unconscious, Subconscious—and Overt: Every person has experiences that shape our perspectives. There is no shame in the fact that these experiences create bias that guides our decision-making as we navigate the world. It’s essential that our organizations take the responsibility to help leaders and employees understand their own biases—and share them with others.
If you want to level the playing field for everyone, you need know where your bias kicks in and where it leads you.
4. Always Be Authentic and Transparent: Talk about stuff. Talk about everything—especially when it makes you uncomfortable. As you make decisions, be prepared to be transparent about them and don’t make any choices decision if you are uncomfortable with your decisions going public. Grow a leadership team that is equally comfortable being authentic with one another and with their teams.
I would like to believe that, in the future, we won't have to talk with our daughters and young women about the dark underbelly of corporate complacency in response to harassment claims.
But the reality is that we already do. I have one daughter in the workforce and another still in junior high. But those little paper cuts start early, and I want to make sure I’m helping cauterize the wounds—so they don’t add up to 1,000.
Making excuses for junior-high behavior, for “boys will be boys” must stop right now. For ourselves and our daughters, we much hold companies, educational institutions, individuals, and ourselves far more accountable than we ever have.
In 1993, I was a junior in high school and an athletic trainer for the men’s track team. As has been a theme in much of my life, I was in the thick of the boys’ club. It’s the job of the trainer to get up close and to understand the athletes. As an athlete myself, I had come to rely on and trust our own trainers.
On most Thursdays, we were in the chaos of pre-meet preparation. The training room rested below the home bleachers of the stadium, dark and cut up into tiny spaces that housed the equipment, locker room, and the training space. Our main room was a frenzy of activity, as usual. Responsible for three athletes at one time rotating ice, heat, wrap and stretch, I ran into the equipment room for more supplies.
As I write this now I can feel the anxiety in my chest.
All the memories come flooding back to a moment in time. I entered the room and grabbed ice from the top freezer. When I turned around, a guy I knew (he wasn't on the track team) was asking if he could help. He had closed the door behind him and was standing uncomfortably close. I told him “I have it.” But before the words escaped by mouth he had me pushed up against the freezer with his body. I dropped everything I was holding and tried to find my voice and did manage to gasp out a few words I don’t remember.
#WhyIDidn'tReport—Just Like So Many Other Women
It happened very quickly. He groped my breasts, then pressed his mouth against my neck before I was able to push him back enough to squeeze past him and open the door. I ran to the women’s restroom in the main building and cried on the floor of the bathroom for at least 10 minutes. I had to get a hold of myself. I had to tell someone...didn’t I? And if so, would anyone believe me? Was it really a big deal? Did I do something for him to think I liked him?
Why me? I’m a nobody.
The reality is that situation is just one example of what’s happened to me in meetings, board rooms, hallways, business trips—and beyond—many times in my professional career. Less overt, perhaps. But in some ways more painful—because at 16, I didn’t think that telling someone would damage my career. In high school, I was not afraid of being different...I already was. That was my strength. I was a nobody in high school, so I was not afraid.
As I built my career, I realized I had much more to lose by raising voice over my workplace harassment concerns. That is, I was complacent until I learned that not saying anything did far more harm—to others and, potentially, to the organization.
Today, when someone says #MeToo, I am all-in. Ready to step up, speak up, and do whatever I can to best serve the individual. In the end, I know it will better serve my career, my employer and society as a whole.
It's time for all of us to ask how our own actions contribute to, or help to change, behavior.