As I See It: In The Face Of Bad Behavior
June 3, 2019 Victor Rozek
I can’t remember precisely what was worrying my manager that day. But as we walked down a long hallway, she expounded on some issue having to do with one of the employees under my supervision. Whatever the specific problem, she seemed more troubled than was common, and in an attempt to reassure her, I put my arm around her shoulders and said: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
That was it. The whole incident took no more than three seconds and I thought no more about it. But months later, over a quiet cup of coffee, she shared the impact of my gesture.
She had gone through a difficult divorce two years prior, and confided that since that time she had not been touched by another human being. My attempt to be comforting nearly caused her to jump out of her skin. For her it was disquieting on a number of levels I could not begin to imagine. And although she was most gracious and vulnerable in her disclosure, the clear lesson for me was this: No matter how honorable my intention, it is always respectful to ask for permission before touching anyone.
Meredith Holley would agree. She is an attorney and a certified life coach. As an attorney, she litigates harassment and discrimination cases. As a coach, she tutors clients and companies how to resolve these issues before they end up in court. As far as touching is concerned, she sees nothing inherently wrong with respectful touch and even hugging in the workplace, as long the gesture has the buy-in of the huggee.
For employees and managers, harassment and discrimination events are nothing if not messy. They are fueled by fear and anger, and they spawn fear and anger. And they occur even in the most benign and respected companies.
Holley argues that to the degree we believe our judgments about people, and hold cultural biases, we are all disposed to discriminate, albeit unconsciously. It takes a great deal of personal work to understand our biases and correct for them. As for harassment, some women endure it for years for fear of retaliation. Others see it and fear it could happen to them. Men fear being accused. If they are accused, proving a negative is an impossible task. Suspicion alone can ruin reputations. Both sides see it as a threat. For their part, companies fear the prospect of liability, and the costly likelihood of having to dismiss an employee.
It’s all about as much fun as a cancer diagnosis.
But make no mistake: the pain is real and the fear is justified. Here is a sobering indicator from Holley’s recent book, The Inclusive Leader’s Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. “Men are still a leading cause of death for women in the United States . . . and white people are a major cause of death for black people.”
If stats like these don’t particularly distress you, it’s probably an indication that you’re of a privileged class whose reality exempts you from such concerns. To be clear, “privilege” does not mean your life will be without struggle or failure, but it does mean you won’t have to put up with the unmitigated bullshit black people, women, LGBTQ, and other less-favored classes confront each day.
The result of privilege is inequity: “The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that in 2017, women overall made approximately $0.81 cents to the dollar that white men made in full-time work. Hispanic women made $0.62 and black women made $0.67 compared to a dollar for white men.”
Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states: “Seventy-five percent of the people who report discrimination report retaliation, which may be why three out of four victims never bother to report harassment.” Further, the EEOC alone recovered “$164.5 million from employers on behalf of employees in 2015 (in 2018, the EEOC reported it recovered $70 million from employers based on sexual harassment claims alone).”
The problem is pervasive and underreported. It can, says Holley, infect the culture of any company and may be more difficult to address in “good” companies where people believe they are doing vital work and are reluctant to jeopardize office harmony – if not their jobs – by uncorking the grievance genie.
As hard as companies have tried to inhibit various forms of harassment and discrimination through employee handbooks, sensitivity training and the like, it persists with the stubbornness of antibiotic-resistant germs.
The reason, says Holley, is that “teaching harassers not to harass has never worked.” Nor does training perpetrators not to discriminate, “because they don’t see their actions as discriminatory, but simply normal.” What does work, based on her experience, is “empowering people who see the discrimination [because] from a targeted person’s perspective, harassment and discrimination are always about power.”
First, however, it’s helpful to know what employees actually do see in the workplace – to determine if the company’s cultural reality bears any resemblance to its stated culture. Holley recommends “active diagnosis” in the form of a confidential survey. Management, she advises, should first determine what information would be most useful and then reverse-engineer the questions in order to get the answers they need.
If systemic abuse is uncovered, or complaints are made, management will want to initiate an investigation. While investigations are sometimes warranted, Holley advises caution. “No one wants to initiate a formal investigation,” she says, “they just want to feel safe at work.”
Which is why simply firing the offender may not solve the problem for the complainant. “They may need to learn how to be safe in that environment in the future.”
But creating safety is largely an inside-out job, and Holley places great emphasis on helping clients recognize the conditions that spawn harassment and discrimination, and coaching them through a process she calls Power Dynamics Facilitation, to help them “understand their boundaries; know when they’re crossed; and ask for a behavior change.”
Ironically, abusers often are also seeking safety. “Fear that others would perceive them as incompetent is a predictor of whether a man would sexually harass,” Holley notes. “Abuse of power is more rationalized when a person believes they are defending themselves.” (White supremacists are an example of paranoia morphing into violence.)
For victims, being proactive is key. There is a difference, Holley says, between believing “discrimination or harassment shouldn’t happen” which is true but ultimately unproductive, and holding a more empowering belief such as “my career is worth protecting,” or “I have the right to be safe.”
But ultimately, Holley says, “conflict is always optional.” It’s a choice. It’s the choice between punishment and change; between winning and healing; between “being right versus achieving the best outcome.”
It is perhaps the intriguing combination of being both attorney and life coach that allows Holley to move beyond solely seeking justice for her clients, toward the possibility of a larger, more inclusive resolution. “My vision of the law,” she says, “is that we use it as a problem-solving tool, not as a mechanism for powerful people to abuse the disenfranchised, not as a mechanism of divisiveness. A good job is always better than a good lawsuit. A productive employee is always better than an investigation.”
In the never-ending duel between consciousness and injustice, Holley has chosen to advocate for elevated consciousness. Over 2,000 years ago, another wise person declared: “Blessed be the peacemakers.” Turns out he was harassed too.