“The only other advice I have is that things are really sexist, and we just have to deal with it.”
Early in my legal career, this was what I heard when I approached another employment attorney about sexual harassment I was experiencing. At the time, I was trying to take preventative steps before the harassment got too bad because I loved the work I was doing. I asked this lawyer how to set clear boundaries in my job with a much older man who seemed interested in me. I was so discouraged by the advice to “just deal with it” that I stopped talking about my experience as it got worse and worse over the course of a year.
Every time my boss would rub my shoulders or lean his body against mine, I would experience a complete freeze and dissociation. I found myself unable to say anything, even though I had never been someone to back down from defending myself. I had experienced harassment in the past and had always been able to stop it and stand up for myself. I knew I was smart and tough, but somehow this was different than what I had experienced in the past. I was constantly holding my breath and felt afraid all the time.
One of the reasons this experience was different was that I was in my dream job. I was representing women in sexual harassment lawsuits . . . while I was being sexually harassed myself. I was saying to women on the phone what I had been instructed to say (“Call us back if you get fired, but otherwise there’s not much the law can do to protect you while you’re still working”), and at the same time, I was experiencing the ramifications of that kind of advice myself. In law firms that represent employees, the advice to “call us back if you get fired” is often spoken over and over again, no matter how painful it is for the attorney or the employee. This is because the law only addresses harassment and discrimination under narrow circumstances and firing an employee for a discriminatory reason tends to be the simplest to identify. When lawyers file lawsuits in other situations they can be expensive for clients and have no guaranteed win. In these situations, lawyers are turning employees away in many senses to protect them rather than giving them false expectations, but that doesn’t make it easier.
I know how this feels on both sides: Terrible. When someone seeks you out as a resource of support in a vulnerable position, it feels terrible to turn them away. When you seek someone out as a resource and they don’t know how to help, your situation can feel hopeless and lonely. Even though I considered myself a feminist and didn’t want to blame myself for the harassment I was experiencing, I changed the clothes I wore, tried to speak differently, and withdrew. When I was experiencing harassment, I would guess that about eighty percent of my brain was taken up trying to guess whether I was safe in a situation and figure out how to keep myself safe without losing my job the next time I was around my harasser.
I saw this same experience in many other clients I was serving. I didn’t have the answer for them, and some of them appeared to be without hope. They heard the same kind of things I heard when talking to friends: “I don’t take things like that so seriously, but I’m pretty resilient,” “It’s probably not as bad as you think, and if you stick it out it will get better,” “You could try to file a lawsuit, but you’ll probably have to quit your job,” or “I’m pretty tough when it comes to things like that, so I just make a joke and brush it off.”
I had been firmly told that making my harasser happy was my one priority in order to keep my job. But it appeared that allowing him to lean his full body against mine to read over my shoulder, rub his hands up and down my arms and shoulders, comment on my appearance and clothing, and criticize my every move was what it would take to make him happy. I felt stuck, and after I reported him to my supervisors twice, I thought maybe there was no answer to what I was going through. But I also believed at the time that I could be in physical danger. I often worked at night and was alone in the office, and like most women, I was raised to believe that being at work after dark was dangerous. I thought maybe my only option was to quit. I thought that quitting meant I would have to move away because my harasser was such a prominent person in my community. I thought I would not be able to continue to work unless I had his support. It seemed like there was no solution. The only two options I was presented with were to quit and sue or to accept the behavior. It did not seem like those could be the only two options, but I just could not find any others.
I’ve always been skeptical of self-help books, and I hated the idea that “positive-thinking” leads to people magically getting rewards from the universe. This always seemed to me like a way to blame people for flaws in the system that they had no control over. I have always believed that “magic cures” are a way for con artists to manipulate people looking for an easy answer.
So, I’m a little embarrassed to tell you that for me, the tools I learned that turned my harassment situation around absolutely felt like a magic cure to me. It was like someone handed me the keys to a door that all these people had access to, but I had never even seen. Or, it was like I was trying to find my phone in a dark room, having an impossible time, and then someone flipped a light switch. It was a really outrageously hard magic cure, despite its simplicity. But just the fact that there was any cure was enough for me, when I had previously thought there might be no good solution. It was like I was pulling a “push only” door for a year, and then someone walked up and showed me how to push the door open. Basically it was a simple shift that meant everything.
So, if you are skeptical that a solution to employee conflict exists, I get it. I was there too, but as an unhappy, afraid, distracted employee, who also cared about and wanted to keep her job and did not want to file a lawsuit. The thing I have found out since learning these tools is that some people just intuitively understand these tools and see life in this way. Many, many of us do not, though. So, even though these tools seem natural to me now, after having practiced them for years, I still encounter people every day who are learning them for the first time. The way these tools will apply to you and your business will be unique, and so if this seems challenging, it is totally normal to need support from a lawyer or power dynamics facilitator.
In my situation, after I learned these tools I was able to encounter the harassment differently. My harasser apologized, changed his behavior, and we worked together safely and respectfully for years after. What was for so long a devastating experience to me became something I look back on as empowering.
When I started using these tools with the employees I was representing in discrimination lawsuits, I saw huge shifts in their abilities to follow through, tell their story clearly, and advocate for themselves and other employees. I teach these tools more specifically in Career Defense 101, as they relate to employees who want to make a difference in their workplace, but am excited to show how these tools can be utilized by employers in my new book Healthy Workplace Culture and in more blog posts to follow.
I get the so excited when an employer knows an employee is even ready to complain about their situation. For example, in one situation an employer saw that her employee made an unusual mistake and knew something bigger was going on. The employer knew that the employee was better than the mistake and so it seemed unlike her, but the employer had also caught wind that another employee was hassling the woman who made the mistake. Once I started to work with the woman it became clear that even though no one else in the office knew about it, the employee had an invisible disability that she was very self-conscious about. What looked like simple “hassling,” average “meanness,” or even “bullying” on the outside felt like harassment and discrimination to this employee, and she was having an internal breakdown about how to deal with it. It was severely distracting from her ability to do her work. She wanted to quit and give up when we first started working together, but when she could see her situation through a more powerful, compassionate perspective, she was able to see how advocating for her career did not need to look like terrifying confrontation or rebellion. She could better see that she could take steps to keep herself safe in the workplace in a way that felt natural to her, and if she did that, she could still pursue a career she loved.
A productive employee is always better than an investigation. When employees are forced to leave jobs, it hurts both the employee and the business owner. Many employees essentially become career refugees, moving from job to job without any safe place to land. It allows harassment to thrive in a business. Often, good, inclusive leaders in a business are not even aware the harassment is happening or truly don’t know how to deal with it. They are seeing the harasser with such a different perspective than the harassed employee that it is hard for them to imagine the company’s cultural health, and thereby its productivity and ability to serve clients, being at risk. Most business owners and managers want to be focused on their work and their service to their clients, not monitoring the interpersonal interactions of their employees. And they should be focused on serving clients.
Creating systemic processes to maintain cultural health is like having a hygiene routine for your business. It does not need to take all of your focus or tank your productivity. In fact, it should enhance productivity and allow your employees to truly, wholeheartedly engage in their work.
What I want you to know is that if you have experienced toxic workplace culture, or even chronic anxiety at work, either as an employee or as a boss (or both!), there is nothing wrong with you. There are solutions. I hope for your sake that you have always been able to push open the doors in your life. But, if you have been pulling on the “push only” doors, I hope the tools I will share help you make a shift, as they did with me.
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.