November 2, 2017

Me Too...With Something to Think About

Writer’s note: This blog contains potentially sensitive perspectives that may trigger victims of sexual assault. I also want to acknowledge that this blog is in no way designed to normalize the inappropriate actions of any one person toward another. The blog specifically discusses male-to-female sexual harassment, but can be effectively applied in regard to harassment toward any other gender.

I began writing a few years ago, blogging personally every single day for a year in an open-journal of sorts. Bold for certain, and perhaps a little stupid. That said, I found that “experiment” opened me up to a deeper understanding of not just myself, but of the people who connected with me offline on whatever the topic of the day was that had resonated with them.  When I completed my year of daily posts, I was pretty sick of talking about myself, so I turned my energies to more of a business focus. Today, however, marks my 100th post in this blog series. I’ve decided to make this one personal on a topic that is making headlines everywhere. It’s very personal.

When I was fourteen years old, I landed my first job at a local ice cream shop. There were very few places for kids under the age of sixteen to work in my hometown, so I was thrilled to score this job, despite the scratchy polyester uniform and incredibly low pay. I quickly made friends with the other teens there, and connected with the regulars. I learned early lessons about the importance of customer service, and the benefits of a strong work ethic. I was feeling great about my ability to balance my job with my school work, and proud I could make spending money from my efforts. All that changed on Saturday afternoon a few months into my start.

There was a counter directly across from the length of the ice cream cooler. Regulars would perch at the counter every day for their coffee, and chat with the waitstaff, the manager, and each other. It was mostly men, on a break from their jobs. Some were a little flirty, but the majority were just nice people looking to share a friendly exchange. That one Saturday, however, I was leaning over scooping ice cream into a dish. Though I couldn’t see their faces, I could hear the male manager make an insanely inappropriate comment about me to the patron. They chuckled. I turned around in defiance.  

I’m not sure what made me stand up for myself in that moment, but I just knew what they had said wasn’t ok. Candidly, I’m not sure I even truly knew what the words meant, but I had enough knowledge to know it was filthy. I also knew no one should be saying that about me at fourteen or frankly, about any woman of any age. Unsure of what to do, I untied my apron, tossed it on the floor and ran across the street to the nearest payphone (yeah, no cells way back then). I called my dad, explained what I had overheard, and he told me to stay put. In what felt like two minutes, he pulled up in front of the restaurant, with me following closely behind him. He stormed up to the manager, essentially threw him up against the wall, and chewed him out. I had never seen him so angry. I was secretly happy to know I hadn’t overreacted.  

He drove me home, and I felt somewhat vindicated that someone cared enough to stand up for me. I also felt really lousy that I no longer had a job. And looking back, it took me storming out and calling my dad to make a difference. I realize that not everyone in this situation is as fortunate as I was to have someone willing to help and support me. In short, even that many years ago, some adult who had overheard that conversation should have taken a stand. No one did. That still happens today. Unacceptable.  

I sat in our kitchen, listening as my father called the chain of command who owned the restaurant. As it turns out, our complaint was not the first of sexual harassment against the manager. It was the fourth, all against young women who previously worked there. Finally, the company was now ready to take action. He was ultimately terminated.

I share this story because it was just my first in a series of varying harassments over the years. These stories have become all too prevalent in the world. Unfortunately, almost every woman I know has some version of it. It needs to stop.

I love that women are finding the courage to bond together and say enough. Stories like that of Harvey Weinstein’s antics are beyond egregious, and in my humble opinion, he deserves everything he’s got coming to him.

As you may suspect, my role and years of experience mean that I have heard first-hand many stories of sexual harassment. What you may not think, however, is that many of these stories start with, “I’m not sure how to handle this,” or include phrases like “I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.”

So, I want to take some time in this post to do two things: 1) offer a few categories that I bucket different types of harassment into (that may help answer that first question above); and 2) share a few phrases for anyone who feels they’re being harassed to use to make it clear that this type of behavior isn’t welcome. While there are certainly more Weinsteins in the world than anyone would like to admit, that is not the story most of us face -- or at least the majority of stories I’ve been witness to.

Let’s explore a couple different levels of escalating behavior at work. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list defining harassment in its many forms, but rather a high level look at this topic.

  1. Good Intent...Most of the Time. One of the benefits of working with smart, interesting people is that it’s potentially a wonderful place to meet both friends and romantic interests, as well as colleagues. When people get along, it’s no wonder someone might strike up the courage to ask you out. Is that harassment? I’d argue no. A simple but polite “no thank you” should do the trick. Asking you out isn’t harassment. But, failure to stop asking you out after you’ve provided a definitive “no” is trending that way and in many cases that is the beginning of a sexual harassment case. Being asked out on a date might be annoying, but it’s not harmful. If he doesn’t stop, or if your “no” turns your interactions with him in the workplace sour or uncomfortable, then take action.  

  2. True Harassment - Playing with Power. This isn’t just a friendly guy at the water cooler trying to gain your attention. This is when someone, often more senior than you, exhibits inappropriate behavior that makes you incredibly uncomfortable and leaves you feeling as though your job is vulnerable or that you will benefit from a more intimate relationship professionally. It can come in the form of excessive flirting, special treatment, promises of raises or promotions. It can leave you feeling powerless, worthless or pressured into a situation you would not otherwise pursue. No matter what form it takes, it isn’t ok, ever.  

  3. Sexual Assault. When the overly suggestive behavior ramps up to inappropriate touching, or in the most severe cases, violent aggressive acts. Very scary and just plain horrific. And by all means, this reprehensible behavior should always be reported.

In most situations where I’ve felt like something might be going on in a direction that I’m not comfortable with, I’ve found a simple, “No thanks” typically does the trick. On a few occasions, I’ve needed to bust out the “Are you f***ing kidding me?” That seems to be incredibly effective.  

I also realize not every woman is comfortable, in every situation, to speak up and stand up for herself. However, I would suggest that we need to enable women with the tools they need to be comfortable clearly expressing their boundaries. Of course, sometimes there are horrible men who go overboard, and we should take appropriate action to address them. I do think it’s worth acknowledging, however, not every overly friendly guy is a Harvey Weinstein in the making. By letting them know we are uncomfortable, we’re creating a clear boundary and hopefully helping other women by making that person think twice the next time. Here are a few simple yet often effective responses to get you started.

  • Attack the behavior, not the person.  “Do not touch me again. It makes me uncomfortable.”

  • State what’s making you uncomfortable. “It’s great that our team shares contact information to keep each other updated, but I would like to request you only text me with work related content.”

  • Vocalize your boundaries.”You are a nice guy, but I have no interest in dating anyone in the office.”

  • Don’t take the bait. If the person in question sends too many or bordering-on-inappropriate texts, Slacks, etc. just simply do not respond.  

If they fail to recognize your boundaries once they’ve been established, that’s when further action must be taken.

Managers, executives, and members of your people strategy team are there to help you if/when you are facing a harassment issue. It is both part of their job and moral responsibility to help address these issues, and make sure that every person is working in a safe, harassment-free environment. No company wants an environment where any woman - or anyone, for that matter - is made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Having a record and highlights of the interaction(s) in question often aids in that conversation.

Let’s work to help everyone understand what behavior is ok and what’s not. We must encourage each other to find our voices, band together and share our stories, and to educate and reform as well. Together, let’s make the workplace the incredibly collaborative, diverse place where we can all thrive.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.