When I ask employees why they want to report harassment or pursue lawsuits against their employers for discrimination, the most common response I hear is, “I don’t want this to happen to someone else.” Employees who report feel tremendous responsibility to protect other people like them from experiencing the burden and stress of abuse.
But, when faced with the reality of how much worse things could get if they stand up publicly against a harasser and an employer who both seem so much more powerful than them, many employees reasonably are not willing to sacrifice their own safety for the mere possibility that it might protect their community.
Within the law, there are some protections for people who are willing to come forward to report crimes that are considered stigmatizing like those involving sexual misconduct. For example, the adults who reported being molested as children by predators in organizations like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America were able to do so because they could file cases under pseudonyms like “John Doe” and “Jane Doe.” Many have been too afraid of retaliation against themselves and their families to use their legal names, and would otherwise have decided not to go forward with cases that have created more safety in our communities. When someone is the victim of a sexual crime, and they are forced to have their name associated with it, often the community perceives there is something wrong with that person, even though, in fact, they did nothing wrong. This is particularly true in small communities, and no matter how large a company is, most work communities feel small.
A man I worked with was a millwright in a small logging community, for example. When he was a child, his brother was arrested and prosecuted for sexually molesting him. This man had recovered from the experience until, as an adult who was married to a woman and had two children, the other men he worked with found out about his experience and started taunting and bullying him with gay slurs. Their perception was that gay people are perpetrators of sexual crimes and somehow he had become a perpetrator of sexual crimes because he had experienced a crime. The harassment became so cruel that he went on medication and ultimately felt he had no choice but to move away from the community.
Recently, I had the chance to work on a protection in Oregon legal rules for victims coming forward in civil court. Traditionally, victims had been allowed to ask in court to use pseudonyms like “Jane Doe” to protect their names in public documents up to the time of trial. But a retired judge began advocating in 2017 to take away this opportunity to ask for a pseudonym. Because of some hard work on the part of a committee of advocates and other judges that I was able to be a part of, a rule was passed allowing victims to continue to ask for protection.
In the final meeting to vote on the rule, Brenda Tracy, a survivor advocate, who speaks about her experience of rape at Oregon State University in order to advocate for other survivors, gave a very powerful speech about her experiences. She said that she, like other survivors who have come out, receives harassing social media posts, bullying letters, and even death threats almost daily. She said that it is not everyone who is strong enough to continue speaking about their experience after they receive so much hatred, but it is worth it to her. The real, present statement of someone who experiences this kind of retaliation was very powerful in demonstrating how confidentiality can determine whether a community hears about a crime or whether it stays secret.
It is no different, though it is sometimes even worse, in a job than in a school or religious community. When an employee feels targeted or unsafe, fear of losing her job or losing her professional community can be a huge deterrent from reporting. When employees do report, they often are so sensitive to retaliation that they may perceive it even when it is not intended. But, more commonly, employers and co-workers who know about the problem often try to avoid the employee, either so as not to cause more problems, or because they actually don’t like the report and believe there is something wrong with the employee.
This is similar to what happens with death and grief. When a family member dies, people often report intense loneliness and that their friends and family start avoiding them. Most friends would never intentionally avoid someone suffering (nor would most managers or co-workers for that matter), but we often worry that we will do something to make things worse, so we try to avoid things altogether. Unfortunately, this often makes things worse. Even worse, there are also those who avoid grieving people because they actually believe there is something wrong with the grieving process, too.
Ostracizing, avoiding, and leaving employees alone can feel like retaliation, regardless of the motivation for it. After all, it is not how we typically respond when an employee accomplishes something huge in her position. For an employee who has made an accomplishment, we surround her with praise and give her more attention. And, reporting harassment and discrimination is a huge, courageous accomplishment. Seventy-five percent of employees are too afraid to try.
You have the opportunity to be a safe space for employees to come and learn how to lead and grow in their own power. With a confidentiality option available and respectful disclosure of the report, many employees are willing to support the efforts an employer needs to take to keep the company safe. The availability of confidential reporting options inside and outside of your company, allows an employee to report and get help without the fear of retaliation.
Most employers do not want to cultivate a fearful, manipulative, deceitful workforce, but that is exactly what they do when they are not able to hold space for discussion of real problems. If you are going to truly lead your employees in an inclusive way, you have to do your work first to see your own biases and taboo topics. You have to be willing to do your own work on power dynamics and step into a place where you are powerful enough to talk about hard things. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Because, in doing so, you can create the type of company culture and community you truly desire to have.
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.