You might be surprised, but I’ve been inspired by Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. Surprised because, after all, his combination of right wing politics, stubborn anti-intellectualism, and an apparently superficial relationship with economic reality might lead you to think he’s not my cup of tea.
But, I’ve been inspired by his ability to reduce complex economic and social problems to his delightfully simple 9-9-9 Plan to cure all that ails the United States. Maybe he’s right; maybe we do need to keep it simple.
So, seeing that he and his Fox News cheerleaders seem to have a problem understanding sexual harassment is (let alone doing anything to end it), I am today officially announcing
The First Zero: We deserve better than Zero trust and Zero safety!
Concern about sexual harassment isn’t whining. It isn’t playing politics. It’s not because women need to lighten up. And it’s not because those who experience it (because of their sex, or sexual orientation, or race, or anything else that might make them a target in someone’s mind) don’t have what it takes for the working world.
Sexual (and other forms of) harassment destroys trust and safety at the workplace. It poisons the work environment. It compromises teamwork and polarizes workplaces. It threatens people. It destroys personal reputations, both of those who are harassed and those who harass. It causes enormous hurt.
It has real economic costs: It lowers productivity. It can lead to expensive investigations, not to mention costly settlements. It hurts the reputations of companies and government bodies.
Women are the main recipients of sexual harassment but men experience it too: usually coming from other men in the form of homophobic harassment (which may or may not have anything to do with their actual sexual orientation.) Younger women (and men) are particularly vulnerable as are other groups with less power in society and the workplace.
The Second Zero: Zero invisibility! Zero excuses!
Most sexual harassment has remained invisible for too long. Most harassment doesn’t come in the more egregious forms: that is, offers of promotion in exchange for sex or threats to a woman who doesn’t comply. Nor is it most commonly about touching that borders on (or is) sexual assault.
These things do happen, but the most common forms of harassment are things that are commonplace and everyday, and that insinuate into the fabric of the workplace: Hurtful or unwanted jokes or pictures. Inappropriate sexual references and innuendo. Casual but unwanted touching. Insistent asking out for dates. Looks and stares that make someone uncomfortable.
We’ve tended to see harassment as a black and white issue or, to use the traffic signal image I use in my workplace training, like it’s a red light or green light: Either something is clearly harassment – that is, it’s a red light, so you better stop. Or it’s a green light – that is, it’s appropriate workplace behavior.
But most harassment is in between: the amber light. Whether it’s harassment or not is a matter of both the personal and reporting relationship of two people, when and where it happens, frequency, who’s around, tone of voice, and, simply whether what someone says to you or does to you is unwanted. It’s all about the impact, not the intention.
And just like when you’re driving, it’s those yellow lights that get people in the most trouble.
We need not only good policies but good workplace training to help workers and managers understand the often subtle and (for too long) invisible forms of sexual harassment that do enormous damage. We need training that helps people understand the underlying power dynamics that cause or perpetuate harassment. We need training to help people learn to sense the impact of their behavior.
And we need to stop making excuses. Stop blaming the victims of harassment; stop demeaning and belittling them further. Stop telling someone at the receiving end of inappropriate and unwanted behavior to lighten up.
We need to stop the nasty stories that most claims are false. Sure, claims of harassment are only claims until proven. Sure, there are occasional vexatious complaints. But it’s pretty rare for someone to go through the grueling complaints process just out of spite. Most complainants just want the harassment to stop.
The Third Zero: Zero people should be silent!
We need to end our silence. Managers must lead by example, by education, and by appropriate responses to create harassment-free environments. Unions and staff associations must ensure their workers are protected from harassment, including harassment by fellow workers because an injury to one is an injury to all.
And for those of us who are men: we’ve got to say to our brothers: Enough! We don’t want you to poison our workplaces. We don’t want you to hurt our sisters or our brothers with language, gestures, and other actions that just do not belong.
So next November (and every day in between): Vote for 0-0-0!
(For more on all this, you might wish to read my short article “Red Light, Green Light: A More Effective Approach to Preventing and Responding Productively to Workplace Harassment” that was published in the Praeger Handbook on Understanding and Preventing Workplace Discrimination, edited by Michele A. Paludi, and available by clicking on the article title . . . And check out the entry on “sexual harassment” in The Guy’s Guide to Feminism, the new book by Michael Kimmel and me.)