After spending multiple decades in the staffing industry, I’ve realized something. We are a “huggy” industry. For the most part, we got into this industry because we love people and we want to help them. So, it makes sense that we are more familiar in work settings than other industries. Unfortunately, this also leads to a blurred line in many situations where lines are easily crossed, both knowingly and unknowingly.
What can we do? There are a few key things to keep in mind when dealing with harassment.
Stop is stop. No is no.
While this seems almost a cliché at this point, it really is this simple. Don’t look for hidden meanings. Don’t try and read into it. Stop means stop. No means no. There is a simple rule that we are all taught as children, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And when there’s a fire, you must Stop, Drop, and Roll.
There is a similar formula that applies to harassment:
Stop harassment before it starts
Address harassment head on
Get help fast when it’s at the line
This means that if you’re ever in a situation where you’re beginning to feel uncomfortable, the first thing you should do is trust that the person had no bad intentions but verify that they overstepped a line unintentionally, as long as there isn’t something blatant going on. This can be as simple as clarifying what they’re saying, asking for, or even acting like. For example, if someone is getting super close and in your personal space to talk in your ear because the trade show room floor of an event is loud and crowded, ask them to step out into the lobby to have your discussion. Then, ensure that they respect your space. If even after this, the inappropriate behavior continues, it’s time to stop being nice. Address the harassment there and then. Let the person know that you are feeling uncomfortable, what about the situation is making you uncomfortable, and tell (don’t ask) them to stop. This can be something to the effect of telling to the individual, “It makes me uncomfortable when you refer to me as ‘Beautiful’ in emails. Please stop and refer to me by my name.” If the behavior persists, get help. Turn to your boss, coworkers, HR, or whoever you trust to have your back for help. You are not alone and do not need to face inappropriate behavior, especially in a friendly but professional environment, alone.
It’s not easy
“That’s all fine and dandy, Dana,” you may say to me, “but if it really was that easy more people would report harassment.” But that’s not the case. According to a 2018 study by SHRM, “94% of HR professionals said their companies have anti-harassment policies, but 22% of nonmanagement employees weren’t sure the company had the policies.” Even just the communication of policies is a hurdle to overcome in making it easy to report harassment. The steps to dealing with and reporting harassment are simple but not in any way easy. Even if the individual knows the policies, they may not report the incident. The same 2018 SHRM study found that while “11% [of those surveyed] said they experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past 12 months…76% said they did not report it for reasons that included fear of retaliation or a belief that nothing would change.” Other reasons for the underreporting could be due to fear of prohibition of future work, losing a client, lack of support at work or at home, fear of ruining someone’s life or livelihood, and, perhaps the most detrimental of all, the normalization of harassment as part of the staffing culture. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard inappropriate behavior being brushed aside as “That’s just how we communicate,” or “It’s our culture to flirt.” No work culture should allow any of its employees to feel unsafe or disrespected. That’s not culture. That’s just an excuse for your demeaning behavior.
That’s why it is so important for companies to have a Zero Tolerance policy when it comes to harassment both from within and without the company. The Zero Tolerance policy cannot stop at internal harassment. It has to include external harassment as well. Harassment from clients, board members, partners, etc. cannot be tolerated. External harassment is where there is usually the most amount of doubt and the least amount of support. The company has to have the employee’s back or risk losing a lot more than a lucrative deal.
5 keys to self-empowerment
To start changing the numbers on the amount of sexual harassment cases and reported sexual harassment cases, we need to take charge. And when I say we, I don’t just mean women. We all, men and women, need to be better at calling out harassment. It’s not normal and it will take a concentrated effort to stop it from continuing to be the norm. Here are five things we can start to do to change the staffing industry to one where we all feel safe and heard.
Zero Tolerance - Companies must support and believe their employees in regards to both internal and external harassment.
Role Play & Practice (by yourself and with those you trust) - The best way to become comfortable with dealing with uncomfortable situations is to practice. Find someone you trust and practice removing yourself from inappropriate situations, take a self-defense class, and understand that no one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable.
Stop Harassment before it starts - Conduct yourself professionally yet relatably and expect the same.
Address harassment head on - Stop is Stop and No is No. Don’t get caught up in gray areas.
Get help fast when it’s at the line - Escalate before the situation crosses the line. Your personal line is black and white and no one can tell you when they’ve crossed your line.
The staffing industry is full of amazing people who love to be around and help others. We can keep the unique hospitality of our industry alive without turning into the next Hollywood. Let’s be the industry that changes the discourse on workplace harassment.