Before sexual harassment makes it to the workplace

Before we experienced sexual harassment at work, we experienced it somewhere else.

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July 8th my friend Chris posted a piece on Performance I Create that I can’t get out of my head. I immediately shared that post with every friend of mine with daughters, not because daughters are the only ones impacted by this, but because I’m a daughter and I have a daughter. The post made me cringe. I cringed because I’ve been in his nieces shoes, I cringed because I’m a certified HR Professional and that behavior is unacceptable, I cringed because out of all the things my parents prepared me for we didn’t really discuss this one, and as much as I’ve tried to prepare our teenage daughter for the real world I hadn’t talked with her directly about the possibility of her being sexually harassed at work. That’s not to say my parents didn’t protect me. All I had to do was ask my dad one time to stand at the bus stop with me in the mornings when I was in elementary school to scare the boys away and he stayed the whole time every morning the rest of the time I rode the bus. My parents let me take gymnastics when I was in 3rd grade and almost burned the place down when one of the boys in class would come over and blatantly try to look up my shorts when we were doing donkey kicks. They looked out for me, they didn’t put me in harm’s way, they just didn’t think to have this specific conversation with me.

I mulled over the words in the post and his nieces’ story and I thought about my 14-year-old. I’m often given a hard time by my friends because I try to shelter her from a lot and I like to joke with her that she can just live with us forever, but really there are so many things I hope she never has to experience and this is one of those things. She’s going into high school this year so it’s not necessarily time for me to prepare her fully for what could happen in the workforce, but it’s time to prepare her for what could happen in high school. Maybe if she can find her confidence in high school, she can use it in the workplace one day.

As I reread the post and thought about how my husband and I could prepare her for high school I thought about some of my own experiences. When I was 14, I vividly remember a group of guys who would lean up against the brick wall right outside the doors into the school that we all walked through when the morning bell would ring. They would say things to me like “oooh you look like a porn star” … I remember trying to avoid eye contact while also trying not to be rude. I thought to myself “what does that even mean? Am I supposed to look like a porn star?” It was a confusing time… If I wasn’t what they thought I was, what did that mean? If I was what they thought I was, what did that mean? I grew accustom to guys trying to see down my shirt or grab my ass (Did I ever tell you the story about my 27 stitches in my hand from someone grabbing my ass? That reminds me, I should tell the littlest Minyard that story).

I was a freshman on the dance team and one of the senior girls would comment on how I dressed. I basically developed over night and I remember one time she said to me “I wouldn’t wear those jeans anymore; your butt is very noticeable in them.” I had two pairs of jeans, the ones I was wearing and a dark colored pair that were the exact same size and style. I immediately became self-conscious. We weren’t in a position where I could ask my parents to just buy me new clothes for the school year. Then another time she and another senior were talking about my lips. I remember her making a really big deal out of the fact that she thought my natural lip color was actually lipstick and something about the conversation made me uncomfortable, but she was another girl so what was I supposed to say? It wasn’t long after this that my wardrobe became blue jeans, sneakers, and white t-shirts (hoodies when it got cold outside). Maybe if I dressed really basic, I wouldn’t call attention to my body.

Another year in high school, I must’ve been a senior so this was well into the “dress down” approach I had, a bunch of us went to an out of town football game to cheer our school on. After the game we went to McDonalds to eat. While I was ordering food at the counter some guy behind me from the other school was acting like he was “hitting it from behind” and my friends told me after I walked to the table. I kindly went back to the counter where he was now ordering his food and told him that I didn’t appreciate that and he needed to be more respectful of others. We argued. His sister jumped in the argument. Before I knew it there were 30 people at that McDonalds waiting for me outside. Nothing happened (and Lord knows I didn’t back down), but that was the response to me standing up for myself? Almost getting jumped?

Turns out, high school was an excellent predictor of what I could expect in the workforce.
I worked at a restaurant when I turned 16 and older men would tell me I looked like Angelina Jolie. Why? Because I was skinny, blonde, and have big lips not because I really look like her. It was a way to tell me they noticed my features without commenting specifically on my features. These weren’t co-workers, these were customers. Could I tell a customer when they were being inappropriate?

I worked at a wholesale distributor when I was 17 where I was lucky enough to work with one of my grandmas best friends sons so at the very least he didn’t let the guys at work say derogatory things about me in front of him, but I heard some of the comments anyway.

When I moved off to college and worked at another restaurant every guy in the kitchen basically hit on all the female servers. Some were respectful, but most were not. Could I tell them they made me uncomfortable? Or that time one of the grown managers invited my 18 year old self to his apartment under the guise that everyone was coming over for a party. I was smart enough to bring a friend with me, thank goodness, and when I got there to see NO ONE ELSE FROM WORK there I left the front door open while I made small talk and found a reason to leave. Here’s the thing, when that same friend of mine got wasted our first weekend away to college at a fraternity party I knew exactly what to do to keep us both safe, but I had no idea what to do when I had a sleeze ball manager that thought it appropriate to trick me into coming to his home.

As an adult I worked for a company that had maybe 3 men on the payroll at any given time. One time, one of the men was wasted and tried to get me to sleep with him. I shut him down easily and then he freaked thinking we couldn’t work together anymore. I made it a point to let it go so he wouldn’t feel weird around me. So HE. WOULDNT. FEEL. WEIRD. AROUND. ME.!?

At that same job I was constantly accused of closing deals because of how I looked. No one even gave a second thought to the fact that I might actually know the ins and outs of what I was selling. These accusations came from women at work, not the men, much like the critique of my looks in high school.

In my current job I had a male sit across the table from me and tell me he sees “cute girls sell things that the consumer really does not need, but they buy it because a cute girl is the one selling it all the time.” Cute. girls… sigh.

As you can see, my friends post had me rehashing a lot of events. Where did it start? How did I respond? How did I want to respond? How do I want my daughter to respond? These aren’t even the half of it and there is no telling what the other girls in high school were also putting up with, or my other female coworkers. I wouldn’t know because we didn’t talk about it.

What I want her to know is that she’s allowed to tell someone when they make her uncomfortable. If she wants to say no, she can say no and I’ll always back her up. If she wants to tell someone they cannot touch her body, I’ll always back her up. If she feels unsafe, call one of us-no questions! No one has a right to comment on her body, her looks, her clothes and she’s always welcome to use her voice to shut that down. I want her to know where her worth comes from because when someone says you look like someone/something it doesn’t make it true. I want her to know that you don’t have to give in and act a certain way because of what people say about your body.

The thing is, we need to address the behavior and the perception and stop pretending that people willingly put themselves in situations to be abused, criticized, or taken advantage of. This is the kind of parenting that takes a village, a village of honest conversations and accountability for how our children treat others. Until we get there, I’ll be continuing this conversation with my young girl so at the very least she finds the confidence to speak out against unwelcome behavior directed towards her and if she ever needs it, the confidence and bravery to call it out at work.

The reality is that all of those experiences we have shape how we behave in the workplace. Sometimes that means someone who got away with harassing people all through school will do it at work. Sometimes it means your HR person was silenced every time she was harassed so now she doesn’t know how to help you when it happens to you. Sometimes it turns us into loud social justice advocates who can be off putting. Sometimes we turn out just fine. How early are you going to start the conversation to change the workplace?

*There is stuff in this post that I never talk about. There is stuff in this post that doesn’t seem very HR Related, but its my blog and I get to bring my whole self to the blog if I want (check the recently updated about me). This is something that has been weighing on me since I read Chris’ post and it’s worth sharing with my readers who are also parents. If we can’t talk about it with each other, can our kids? 

 

 

And another thing…Her too

Another thing that unexpectedly took up a lot of brain space for me in 2018 goes all the way back to a conversation that started in 2015.

For several years now I’ve been part of the SHRM Blog team that gets a pass to conference each year in exchange for writing about the event. All other notions about SHRM aside, it’s usually a pretty great team of people and I’ve found some incredible mentors and friends through this avenue. Back in 2015 the annual conference was in Vegas and the fundraiser (back when we also had an annual fundraising event for NKH) that was organized for the group to participate in was a poetry slam.

Even though this was my third time being at annual conference, I still didn’t know a lot of the group and I kind of stuck to myself  at these events and a handful of familiar faces. One of the people who participated in the slam shared her horrible experiences from multiple conferences through her poetry. I sat so still when she was talking. It was the first time I heard someone who was in the same field as me talk about the way she was treated by males in the industry, and sometimes other females. How she was talked to, how she was propositioned, how certain things were expected of her… I very distinctly remember someone I knew at my table leaning over and saying “she and I are clearly not going to the same conferences.”

But here’s the deal, we are going to the same conferences. It’s happening at conferences that YOU and I are attending. Conferences full of HR professionals! And lawyers! And other business leaders!

After the slam was over I kept telling myself to go over there and talk to her. I was so shocked about what she shared and I truly felt for her, I could relate. I couldn’t think of any words to say so I said what really turned out to be the worst thing I could think of “Why do you keep coming back to these?”

I’m not going to share specifics of what she shared that night in front of the whole crowd because I have literally never talked to her again and did not get her permission to share the details. I’m not going to share specifically what she said in response to my question because that’s for her to share, but I can say she handled it with more grace than I probably would have. I mean, I basically asked her why she continued to come to a conference related to her field that also was a source of potential clients which ultimately turns into revenue. Her livelihood. I asked her why she came back to something that represented a connection to her livelihood.

I have replayed the poetry she shared that night and my idiotic question in my mind so many times since 2015, but most of those times were during the year of 2018.

I was part of the problem that night in Las Vegas. I asked a question that implied it was her fault that these things kept happening because she kept coming back. I asked a question that implied if she would stop coming, these things would stop happening EVEN THOUGH I know these things can happen to anyone, anywhere.

The Vegas conference was a weird conference for me. I felt that a lot of the content was “just playing it safe,” and not challenging us to be bold in our profession. We HR professionals need to hear the hard truth, and this hard truth is that we cannot sit in our offices, behind our desks, and help create a narrative that the victim is to blame. We cannot ask questions that imply a worker put themselves in a position to be harassed just by showing up.

Think about the last time you heard about someone being harassed or being a victim outside of work? How did you react? Did you ask a really dumb question like me? Did you assume the victim should’ve done something different? Were you impartial? Did you look for the facts? Were you sure you knew the victim was lying because you know something about their character already? The truth is, who we are at home is who we are at work-you can’t fake it forever.

That incident in Las Vegas in 2015 is burned in my memory forever. The good thing about that is, I learned something about myself that night and I’ve equipped myself with the resources to handle that differently in the future.

Friend, what are you going to do differently in 2019?

Go to Human Resources…if you dare!

Go to Human Resources.

In a time when sexual harassment victims are speaking up in a variety of industries I’m seeing more and more people ask, “Where was HR?” … “Did anyone go to HR?” I’ve just scrolled past these comments and kept my mouth shut as people have argued one way or the other whether employees should or should not go to HR. Ironic right? That I would choose to keep my mouth shut (and not just because I have a big mouth).

As an HR professional, I think you should go to HR when you have a sexual harassment complaint. In fact, I can very vividly remember the first time I ever conducted a sexual harassment investigation. I was 24 and had less than 5 years of HR experience. I was running an office for a temp service and one of my employees came forward to tell me that an employee of the customer site had been sexually harassing her. I hadn’t had the client for very long, but I had already established a great relationship with their HR person and was able to work with him to conduct a thorough (and gut wrenching) investigation. Between the two of us, I had more HR experience and it felt like the blind leading the blind.

The thing that sticks out to me the most is that I can remember how scared my employee was to come forward. When she finally came forward she told me that the talk in the plant was she would lose her job, because she was “only a temp.” Everyone knew that if a temp complained about a full-time employee, the temps fate was sealed. She was a single mother and working as much as she could to support her and her child, but couldn’t ignore the harassment any longer. She overcame her fear and came forward. She was lucky enough to have an HR person that would see the investigation through.

not speaking

I didn’t always hire for the most glamorous positions and I didn’t always have the most glamorous employees, but I know this: I will always advocate for employees when they need it, whether in-house or on a customer site. The things that we uncovered in that investigation still haunt me. The things said to employees, the things shown or done to employees, the many years it went on-far before mine and the HR manager at the times role in the company. The outcome of the investigation was termination for the accused. The temp employee who came forward became a hero to other women in the plant and things were normal for a bit. I was amazed to learn that these women had come to “accept” this type of behavior because it was a manufacturing plant and “boys will be boys” and they were outnumbered.

Fast forward several years in my career and I was working in a much more professional environment, supporting another male dominated field. A place that I thought couldn’t possibly have those kind of issues and if they did come up, we had a full team of well-educated HR professionals that would handle it. Only I was wrong.

I’ll never forget the day that I found out a female employee (who I advocated for the organization to hire) reported sexual harassment to the HR manager during her exit interview. This employee had text message proof on her phone of inappropriate conduct from a male manager and the HR manager did nothing. I often wonder if it’s because the HR manager was friends with the accused male manager, or was it because the HR manager didn’t like the way this female employee dressed? Maybe it was because the HR manager had learned to keep her mouth shut in order to survive the boys club she worked for. I’ll never know, because I’ll never ask her, but no matter the reason her lack of response tells me she doesn’t represent the HR that I advocate for. Whatever her reason it reminds me that my profession needs a lot of work. Whatever her reason for not acting on proof right in front of her face tells me that she represents why employees won’t dare go to HR for help in a situation that could be detrimental to their own working environment and career. That HR manager represents everything wrong with our profession and all the reasons why people can get away with sexual harassment and cover it with intimidation tactics-male or female.

That HR manager isn’t the only problem. There are many in the field and my plea to all of them is either get out of HR or use your network to support your spine and stand up to do the right thing. Stop feeding the notion that employees shouldn’t come to HR because we won’t do anything about it. Do something, do the right thing. If you don’t know what to do, find someone who does. Bring someone else in to conduct the investigation if you have to (an option I now prefer over doing the investigation myself, helps to keep the outcome free from existing bias). Participate in HR training’s, round-tables, webinars, whatever it takes for you to learn how to do this very tough part of your job!

You have an entire network of HR professionals out here who want you to do the right thing and will help you when you stumble!