Like many women, I feel a sense of profound anger and also relief by the many national conversations about sexual harassment following the Harvey Weinstein revelations. It’s maddening that someone would abuse their power in such a way, but having it addressed openly and seeing the outpouring of support through movements like #metoo has been comforting. Though the aggressive sexual behavior that Weinstein displayed is not a common experience in workplaces, the day-to-day sexism, jokes, comments, and leers are.
As the conversation about workplace misconduct has grown, so has my sense of guilt. Guilt because how many times have I, as an HR professional, been witness to behaviors that I find questionable? Witnessed men, particularly those in positions of power, saying something that felt uncomfortable or creepy. How many times have I seen men dismiss women, comment on their outfits or even their sexuality in meetings? How many times have I heard a woman say that a man has made them uncomfortable? The answer to all those questions is: often. How many times have I confronted that man, written him up, or fired someone for that behavior. Much less often.
I cannot excuse this. There is no excuse for this. When I ask colleagues in my profession, many say something similar. Though all of us had experienced behavior that was verbally inappropriate in at least one company, we had not always taken action.
Though I cannot excuse and will not excuse inaction, I can offer a lens which may help others understand our culpability. We are a profession of predominantly women, in fact 73% of HR managers are women. HR is the only leadership position in corporate America that is predominantly female (BLS ). Many women have grown our HR careers through the very corporate system that often excludes and mistreats us and other women. Many of us have been made to feel that our livelihood depended on us looking the other way. But truth be told, that is not the only reason.
Often, many HR heads, myself included, have been subject to the same despicable treatment by the same men that we have received complaints about. I have awkwardly laughed when a male executive told me which members of the HR team were the hottest. I have sat as far away as possible from a male manager who commented on what women were eating because it might ruin their figures. I have had a male facilities manager lecture me about why women should not have access to company provided tampons (spoiler alert: it’s because he didn’t think women knew how plumbing works). Every time I have confronted these men, even in my official capacity, I was told that I wasn’t “cool,” that I “couldn’t take a joke,” that I “didn’t get it.” And I have wondered, perhaps, if they were right.
I now see that by including me in their misogyny, they were protecting themselves. If they could make me feel small and uncomfortable, they hoped I wouldn’t step forward when the time came to protect employees. If I questioned my own treatment, how could I believe the treatment of others? Perhaps the men that commit these offenses were unconsciously using HR as a canary in the coal mine. Testing to see if the culture would punish or protect them. If we ignored, dismissed or nervously laughed away their behavior, they felt safe to proceed. But those are not the employees that should feel safe in our workplace.
HR colleagues, we must do better. We need to address situations in the moment and know that it’s expected and appreciated. We must not fear being labeled humorless, or too serious. We must feel confident that creating a safe space and being a fun and accessible person are not mutually exclusive. By addressing comments quickly and thoughtfully, you are telling your team that you and your company will not tolerate that behavior. You are creating an inhospitable climate for toxicity to grow.
For those of us that have experienced this treatment in the workplace, we need to use our experiences of feeling shamed and silenced to increase our empathy for those that have been shamed and silenced.
HR, particularly the women that have made up the bulk of this profession, have done so much to help create a safe environment for workers, but we must do better. We must be willing to live in the discomfort so that all employees feel more safe. We need to stop looking the other way when we are uncomfortable and stare right back.
Katie Augsburger has worked to help companies become great and inclusive places to work. You can find her at https://connectforengagement.com/