Sexual harassment again raises its ugly head!
Given the recent emergence of the issue of sexual harassment in news with charges lodged against Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly and others, the Chattanooga News Chronicle sat down with Terry Howard recently to tap into his decades of experience in training and writing about the issue.
CHRONICLE: Sexual harassment is back in the headlines. Does that surprise you?
HOWARD: Not all. That tends to happen when high profile men get charged. We saw the same thing after the Clarence Thomas hearings. But what’s encouraging is there’s a cultural shift on this issue in that more men are stepping forward, owning the fact that sexual harassment is their issue too.
CHRONICLE: So what exactly is sexual harassment?
HOWARD: It is unwelcomed behavior of a sexual nature. Some examples are repeated, degrading or offensive remarks, jokes, and gestures of a sexual nature. Of course some behaviors – physical assault – don’t have to be repeated to fit the definition. It’s important to understand that sexual harassment is receiver-perceived.
CHRONICLE: Why on earth do ‘intelligent’ people harass?”
HOWARD: The answer isn’t that simple. Its causes are complex, rooted in socialization, culture, societal gender expectations and psychology. I believe that the root of sexual harassment is power, control and insecurity. When some feel threatened or rejected, or have poor social skills, they harass. Sex is often a secondary motivation.
CHRONICLE: Is it safe to assume the majority of harassment targets are women and the aggressors men?
HOWARD: Sexual harassment happens to both women and men, although it happens more often to women. Although harassment of men does occur, men are less likely to report the behavior because the societal stigma that men “should enjoy it!” It’s also important to know that targets run the full gamut – young, old, well-educated, married – and it occurs in every function, field and culture. Harassment happens in our presence, behind our backs, from customers, on business trips, and in other ways and places. It happens male to female, female to male, male to male and female to female.
CRONICLE: So what do you say to someone who dismisses “innocent” jokes as light humor without malicious intent?
HOWARD: First, harassment is in the eyes of the beholder. Someone who does something that another finds offensive should stop. Second, the “intent” is secondary to the “impact” of the behavior. Although the intent may be to have a little fun, the impact on the target can be very damaging. Plus there’s the “secondary impact” – the signal to a third party that the behavior is not only acceptable, but also expected. Also damaging is the reputation of the supervisor or manager who either knows or should have known about the behavior and does nothing.
CHRONICLE: Tell us your thoughts on training as a way to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.
HOWARD: I developed the workshop, “New Focus on Sexual Harassment” years ago and followed that with, “Sustaining a Harassment-Free Workplace” afterwards. Well over 30,000 U.S. supervisors, managers and direct employees completed the training.
CHRONICLE: What is the difference between the two workshops?
HOWARD: “New Focus” was built around gender. “Sustaining” was expanded to include other forms of harassment, including harassment based on age, race, religion and sexual orientation.
CHRONICLE: Tell us a bit more about the content of your workshops?
HOWARD: Sure. First and foremost, our workshops are balanced and non-accusatory. Second, although they are designed for different audiences, all share common core content including legal definitions, EEOC Guidelines, policies and the specific roles on the part of the organization, supervisors and managers and individual contributors in preventing and responding to harassment of any kind. From our experience short case studies and individual strategies work best including what to do if the “harasser” is a customer or client, is your boss, or is from a different culture. Our harassment “response tip sheet” equips participants with a practical tool to use back at work.
CHRONICLE: What else from your experience works best in minimizing harassment in the workplace?
HOWARD: I believe in the “systems” approach and training is an element of that system. What I’ve observed over the years is that when harassment strikes the organization, word quickly spreads and fear and turmoil can result. Relationships can be put on edge. So it is important to put together a communication strategy – as we’ve done – to heal the organization. I also found that one-on-one coaching with leaders is essential, particularly to those leaders from different cultures and parts of the world who do not view harassment in the same way we see it in the USA. For example, I once coached Vice Presidents in organizations who transferred to the USA from France and Latin America, both of whom had no clue that their behavior was offensive. In the end, both told me that the coaching was very helpful.
CHRONICLE: Thanks for sharing your thoughts Terry.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Huffington Post and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org