I came across an excellent example of how not to handle a sexual harassment complaint in a newspaper report on allegations of sexual harassment within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force (RCMP):
RCMP Constable Janet Merlo says she felt compelled to respond when a supervising officer made a sexist remark to her in the company of a high-ranking official from the force.
“You know, if I were to make a complaint, I could probably retire on just what you say to me alone,” she said.
“What was that?” her boss replied. “Did you say you want to retire on me? Does that mean you like it on top?”
It was at this point that the senior RCMP officer in the room interjected.
“If you’re going to talk to her like that, do it somewhere else,” he said to the male officer. “I don’t want to be a witness to stuff like that.”*
I don’t think I could invent a better example of how not to handle an incident of sexual harassment. First, the remark by the Constable’s supervising officer clearly fits one definition of sexual harassment, which is remarks of a sexual nature which are known (or should be known) to be unwelcome. It is clear that the remark was unwelcome, as the Constable communicated as much when she referred to the possibility of making a complaint. Second, the “high-ranking official” clearly knows that the remark was inappropriate – that’s why he told the supervisor not to speak to Constable Merlo in such a way in his presence. But while he communicated to both that he understood the remark to be inappropriate, he also communicated to both that it was fine for the supervisor to go on making such remarks, as long as he did it “somewhere else”! Small wonder that the newspaper article goes on to report that the biggest challenge facing the RCMP’s new Commissioner is the history of allegations of harassment by female Mounties.
Like workplace bullying, workplace sexual harassment is a problem for management. While I believe that women should be empowered to speak up in the face of inappropriate remarks, expecting employees to deal with sexual harassment on their own is both unrealistic and an abdication of management’s responsibilities. As is the case with workplace bullying, how management approaches the problem can make the difference between a flourishing and respectful workplace, and a workplace with low morale, low productivity, high employee turnover and a host of other problems.
Happily, I also have an example of an organization that did a better job in response to allegations of workplace sexual harassment. A friend of mine (I’ll call him Dave) was at the time in the C-level of a flourishing start-up. He told me that a number of different female employees complained to him about a male co-worker because of his frequent sexually-charged remarks. Dave spoke to the employee in private and told him that the remarks were inappropriate and unacceptable, and that his behaviour would have to change. Unfortunately, the employee in question was unwilling or unable to change and the inappropriate remarks continued. Dave felt that he had to let the employee go. It wasn’t easy for Dave to confront the employee, and it certainly wasn’t an easy decision to let him go. But Dave felt that he had no choice. He realized that if he failed to act, that would have been sending a message to his female employees that he tolerated sexual harassment and that he was indifferent to their discomfort.
Dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and confronting alleged harassers probably top the list of things that a manager would rather not do. No one looks forward to this kind of difficult conversation, and the desire to avoid the whole thing is understandable. But the cost of such avoidance can be very high, and difficult conversations become easier with communications training. Having a clearly written code of conduct or other policy document in place is also crucial, as is making sure that all employees are aware of it. Employees and managers alike benefit when expectations of behaviour are clearly stated and understood.
*Gary Mason, “Former Mountie paints picture of near daily harassment.” The Globe and Mail December 3, 2011.