When I listened to Rhea’s voicemail message, I could hear the panic in her voice. She said that she had made an appointment for later that week, but she felt she needed to talk to someone right away because she was so concerned about the situation she and the other owners of her company were facing. I called her back and she explained to me that a man who worked for her had accused a female co-worker of sexual assault and harassment. She wanted to make sure everyone was safe and that she was conducting an appropriate investigation, and she was also worried that these allegations could ruin her business’s reputation in the community.
Even though it’s hard for many of us to even acknowledge, the emotional and physical impacts of harassment and discrimination are not the only issues many business owners need to face when they have employees. When we love our employees and think of our workplace as a family, it is stressful to think about anyone in that work family feeling unsafe or anyone in that work family creating an unsafe situation.
On top of that, though, allegations of harassment and discrimination can seriously impact how the public sees a business. A Harvard Business Review Study published in June 2018, titled How Sexual Harassment Affects a Company’s Public Image, reported that a single allegation of sexual harassment can create the public impression that an entire organization has a systemic cultural problem. The study also reported that if the public hears an organization’s response was timely, informative, and considerate to the victim, it eliminates the public perception that the organization has a systemic cultural problem. So, one incident of sexual harassment can significantly hurt a business, unless the business responds effectively to restore the company to a position of cultural health. As you probably know, the #MeToo movement generated interest in sexual harassment, and that promoted research studies and surveys on sexual harassment in 2018, showing how common sexual harassment is. This study is one of those.
As a white woman, sexual harassment is a way I typically experience discrimination, and it is also a particular focus of my business, in part because of my personal understanding of it. So, if I focus some of my writing around sexual harassment, it is not meant to minimize any other experiences, it is simply what I can speak to. On top of that, the #MeToo focus on sexual harassment has generated very interesting statistics and research focused on harassment that extrapolate to other forms of discrimination as well. For example, we have seen bakeries close down after refusing to provide wedding cakes for gay marriages. There are approximately 3-4,000 more charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for race discrimination than sex discrimination each year, and each of those likely represents this type of crisis situation for a business. Even though this story and others in my writing focus on sexual harassment as the example and as my particular expertise, these studies can inform other areas of toxic workplace culture as well.
Rhea explained to me that she has a background in teaching sex-positive classes, and she believes strongly that shame around sexual experiences is unhealthy. She also had her own experience of sexual assault that was traumatizing, and she understood what it felt like to be victimized. The employee accused of harassment vehemently denied that anything non-consensual had occurred between the two employees, and Rhea didn’t know who to believe. She wanted to protect her employees, and she also believed in the work her company was doing and wanted to protect that. She didn’t want to think of her business’s health being threatened by a cultural problem with her employees. She and a few co-workers had intentionally left another company to start this business because she saw that employees in her field were not treated well. She felt she was doing everything for her employees, even sometimes sacrificing her own salary, and so hearing allegations of abuse felt devastating.
Rhea’s male employee who was alleging the abuse believed he was being treated differently as a man than a woman alleging abuse would have been. He thought that a man accused of sexual harassment would have been fired immediately, and that it was unfair for a woman accused of harassment to be heard and able to stay in her job for a day longer. Rhea put the female employee on leave, but honestly Rhea did not see things the way her male employee did. She felt that men are often given a great deal of leeway when they are accused of harassment, but she felt conflicted about whether that meant she should continue the tradition of giving leeway to someone accused of harassment or whether she should take a harsher stance to honor victims of harassment. To top it off, all of this was happening while Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed to the Supreme Court. The tensions were high, both about the issue of whether victims should be believed and whether perpetrators should be given a second chance and considered “innocent until proven guilty.”
Rhea’s business had grown up from a small group of friends to thirty-five to forty employees. She did not have the opportunity to interact with each of the employees all of the time, and so it was a shock to her to find out that anyone could feel unsafe in the work space she had taken so much care to create. She loved each of her employees, and hugging was a regular greeting in the workplace. Would this mean that she and her employees should be afraid of hugging each other as a greeting because someone might take it the wrong way?
Rhea said that this allegation was so stressful to her that she had trouble sleeping in the days leading up to our meeting. She felt high anxiety and nauseated at the idea of what could happen to her employees and her business. Others told her she should not be so concerned. Of the small handful of people who heard about these allegations, some told Rhea they were confident that the relationship the two employees had was consensual and that the male employee was using the Kavanaugh hearings as social leverage for himself. Rhea believed it was not that simple. She remembered her own experience and knew what it felt like to be disbelieved and not know what to do. She had done tremendous personal work to be able to lead the business she was leading, and she knew how painful it was to view herself as a victim of a sexual crime.
When we met, I mentioned to Rhea what I often see when I am working with employees as a lawyer and life coach in high-conflict harassment and discrimination situations. I let her know that often when there are allegations of sexual harassment, the accusing employee views themselves as having a powerless role and engages in people-pleasing behavior. So, even if the accused employee did not mean to harass the accusing employee, the accusing employee may still have had an experience of victimization. To say it more simply, one person might not like something another is doing, but the first person feels powerless to say something. The second person genuinely doesn’t know they’re doing something unwanted, but the first person still experiences trauma. Rhea immediately looked at me and said, “That’s it! I think that is exactly what is going on here.” She showed me the investigation she and the other owners had done, and it supported two very different viewpoints. In the investigation notes it was clear that the accusing employee himself recognized that in the moment he had not told the woman he believed was harassing him that her behavior was unwanted. The woman said she believed that the man actively consented to and liked her behavior; the man said he believed he was not allowed to say no.
When I started working with Rhea’s employees, both were in complete crisis. Both spent over an hour crying and/or yelling to initiate our conversations, and I sat with both of them for four hours for our initial meeting to really absorb their perspectives on their stories and offer them the basics of what I teach. The next time we met, both were still angry and hurt. Before our third conversation, though, both had apologized to each other for their part in what they agreed was a complicated relationship. They agreed that they wanted to try to work together professionally. Rhea was able to implement rules that would make the workplace safer, with specific expectations around physical contact and respect.
One of Rhea’s business partners expressed that she had been really worried that their work family would have to become a cold place after these allegations of harassment, with no hugging, joking, or personal relationships allowed. But, after these employees did the hard work to shift the power dynamics in their situation and own responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, and actions, she noticed positive attitude changes and more engagement from them.
I have seen businesses shut down after harassment allegations, and I have also seen businesses and their employees thrive and grow around these conflicts. Ignoring and covering up harassment and discrimination does not solve it, it just feeds the toxicity and gives it room to grow. Once it is big enough, it can swallow entire organizations. Resolving a cultural health conflict never means covering it up or pretending abusive behavior is okay. But, when employers can take an active role in diagnosing their company’s cultural health and effectively resolving conflict issues by understanding and teaching how power dynamics impact the workplace, it is possible for harassment and discrimination allegations to ignite growth in the business, rather than destruction.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.