Harassment…A Leadership Dilemma


The world of business and industry has improved dramatically for women over the past two decades but we are still hearing a lot about male chauvinism, glass ceilings and gender discrimination. Despite the positive efforts of business leaders, I personally believe that there is a diminished but definite level of unfair and unfounded gender discrimination still alive and well in North America today. We are evolving to a better world, but evolution is a slow process. This discussion of harassment is intended to bring some clarity to one of the most provocative elements of the glass ceiling challenge. 

Here is one interpretation of the word, “harassment”: 

When used in the workplace it can be generally defined as unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, race or other legally protected characteristics that unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or is intimidating, hostile or offensive to another person.  

Examples of sexual harassment can include but are not limited to:  

Leering or staring in a sexually suggestive manner; offensive remarks about appearance, clothing or body parts; unwanted touching, pinching, patting, or intentional brushing against another person’s body; telling sexual or lewd jokes; making sexual gestures, making unwanted sexual advances, displaying or circulating sexually suggestive emails, letters, notes, images or other materials.  

(Each jurisdiction has its own laws and interpretations on the subject) 

Note that the harassment need not necessarily be directed at the person who ultimately makes the complaint. Any of these scenarios when overheard or viewed from a distance that make another person uncomfortable can be construed as harassment. Note too, that although men are considered the usual culprits, sexual harassment is not the sole domain of males. Women can in fact be guilty of harassing men or other women, should they be guilty of initiating any of the scenarios noted above. 

The distaff side of society has men running-scared on the sexual harassment front. There has been so much media attention focused on it that men are often afraid to be too friendly or simply act like themselves around women at work. As much as harassment should not be tolerated, it must be real and tangible before it is acted upon. Interestingly, as business and industry evolve, we are beginning to find that some women tend to mimic men in the workplace in order to move up the corporate ladder. That evolutionary behavior seems to include more cursing, more talking about sex, more leering at men, more sexually suggestive remarks about men, (and to men) on an ever-increasing level. 

While most men are trying to be more politically correct and cautious about how they speak to women, a small number of ladies are reversing the roles by becoming more provocative and in some cases by adopting the chauvinistic ways of men. Unfortunately, women must be cautious when emulating male attitudes since more-liberated, less-feminine conduct might be misconstrued as promiscuity or even sexual harassment against men. As they endeavour to shatter the glass ceiling, women in the workplace have a very complex line to walk. 

It is important to understand that anti-discrimination laws are not concrete, universal codes of conduct. In other words the laws do not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not intended to be serious. The conduct must be so offensive as to alter the working conditions of the person being harassed. The harassment must actually create a tangible and negative effect on the life of the complainant or be sufficient to create a hostile work environment. In other words, people who have a bad sense of humor or a bad attitude are not to be considered guilty of sexual harassment unless it becomes an extremely egregious or harmful matter for another employee.  Before anyone brings a formal charge of sexual harassment, they should document their complaint and make certain they can formally back up the justifications for it. 

A charge of harassment can end a career or destroy a life so it must be taken very seriously! 

Some suggestions on how to deal with harassment: 

  • Always remain calm and think before reacting.
  • Always respond to improper behavior rationally and without anger.
  • Bring complaints of discrimination or harassment against others only when you know it is real and deliberate but never allow genuine discrimination or harassment to go unnoticed. Genuine harassment should be stopped and the offender dealt with very seriously!
  • Managers, supervisors, and leaders at all levels must do everything they can to discourage and prevent harassment in the workplace.
  • Parents must impress upon their children that harassment is very wrong from an early age.
  • When faced with adversity or prejudice at work, forge on with dignity.  

Harassment in the workplace is a very real dilemma for leaders because it is bad for morale and can affect production and performance levels. Men and women can get along very well at work when they strive deliberately for it while carefully avoiding the common pitfalls.  Many women are moving up corporate ladders by practicing patience and pushing aside stereotypes while refusing to accept anything less than what they deserve. Persistence and consistently good performance will win over gender bias or negativity fostered by old stereotypes and chauvinistic attitudes every time. Just think about some of the great female leaders of history such as Elizabeth Fry or Mother Teresa. They acted with gentility and kindness in a male dominated world at times and in places where women were more likely to fail than succeed…yet succeed they did! 

All the Best!

Wayne Kehl

 

From “A Man on Women” © Wayne Kehl 2010

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