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Sexual harassment and sexual assault are hot topics, right now, but none of this will stay in the news much longer. It’s a cyclical event. Every few years, someone opens the door and reveals the true nature of a work environment. A few dudes are outed. Executive leaders and HR professionals promise vigilance. Then the spotlight fades, leaving leaders to sort out conundrums like:

He’s a top performer with a long-standing history, but he likes to stick his D in younger associates. What do we do?

You fire the guy, right? You make an example of him, yes? With some warning, we know what to do. But managers and HR professionals mess this decision up all of the time. The brain gets foggy, we forget about past precedent, and we rationalize the behavior as if it’s our own fate we’re considering.

Maybe it is.

I think we move closer to managing and eliminating sexual assault and harassment at work if we drop the word sexual and focus on behaviors. Harassment in the workplace emerges from a power differential and is expressed in a confusing language of sex and gender that’s often, but not always, binary. Understand the power differential, and you understand how to fix it.

HR professionals don’t talk about power and privilege enough, by the way. Probably because they don’t have much of it. But if these incidents are viewed through the lens of power — and not penises and vaginas and hormones — the arc of harassment and assault at your office isn’t all different from the narrative at a restaurant, movie theater, industrial factory, or even Fox News.

Let’s have a look at how sexual harassment and assault unfold from a position of power and privilege.

Have you ever been out to lunch at burrito shop and a cisgender male behind the glass is doing everything other than asking you if you want brown or white rice?

    He’s talking to his friends, looking at his phone, or simply taking his time because he’s part of the 17% of the workforce who is actively disengaged? That’s not harassment. It’s like, “Do your job, burrito bro. Make my burrito.”

But imagine the burrito bro engages in the same slowpoke behavior but also turns to you and says things like, “Hey, girl. Wow, you look pretty tonight. Do you have plans? You’re got that big diamond ring on your finger, but you don’t look happy.”

    Remember, you’re the customer. You’re watching this unfold before your eyes. What do you do? Do you smile and deflect? Report him to management? What’s your role in stopping the behavior? Do you even have a role? Is that sexual harassment or straight up harassment?

Let’s flip the script and pretend the burrito bro is great. Superior customer service. Five stars on Yelp. You like what you got, and you’ll be back because you like their tortilla chips. But what if he later turns to his co-worker and says, “Hey, girl. After this shift, you wanna come back to my place?”

    Are you one of those people who is outraged? Or do you believe that everybody gets one shot to ask someone out in this world? Do you wonder why he’s assuming that his co-worker falls within his preferred sex and gender without asking? Would he respect her if she said no? Or do you wonder why this guy isn’t simply doing his job? Is he engaging in sexual harassment or straight up harassment?

What if this burrito bro is a shift supervisor?

    Worse, let’s make him a store owner and operator. What if he’s in charge of schedules? Do you think he still gets one shot to ask someone out? Isn’t he human just like us? Should he pass up on the chance to be with his soulmate just because [he/she/they] works for him and earns $12/hr making burritos? Or is he a monster and a predator for expressing himself sexually to a subordinate? Is he engaging in sexual harassment or straight up harassment?

What if burrito bro physically forces himself onto his co-worker because he thinks he’ll change [his/her/their] mind?

    Well, we know the answer. Or do we? Is he engaging in sexual assault or is it simply assault in its ugliest form? Do we diminish the assault by adding the word “sexual” as a prefix?

Some people hate hypothetical scenarios. They can’t answer these questions without more context because the consequences of each behavior have various different punishments. People want to be fair and considerate to both sides before they dole out justice.

That’s fine. But when you do finally rule in favor of the employee, there is no justice. Money doesn’t fix their broken professional reputations or reboot their careers. A check doesn’t compensate them for hours spent enduring the harassment, along with the additional hours of thinking about the experience.

As leaders, you can have the same old debate about sexual harassment and assault — caught up in the binary language of he/she and him/her — or you can engage in the art of reflection and think about how to prevent this from happening again.

Start by removing the word “sexual” from your vocabulary and your HR handbook. Write a policy that hones in on behaviors that emanate from actual or implied power differentials. Then, take all allegations seriously, not because they’re amped up with sexual language, but because all complaints are worthy of consideration. Even the dumb ones. And cut quickly. Fire anybody who makes a false claim, fire people who behave in harassment or assault, and be transparent about the process.

Transparency matched with sound internal policies will teach your workforce how to make better decisions.

Once you do all that, take a gender studies course. Then take a nap. Then have a drink. Then throw your fists in the air and curse the almighty gods for besieging your workforce with stupid people. And get on with the business of running your business. I’m here to tell you that never gets any easier. You’ve been warned.

3 Responses to Sexual Harassment is About Power, Not Sex
  1. Dawn Passaro

    I appreciate your comments Laurie. You have a good idea. I am not so sure it would make things easier. Unfortunately – the people with the power are often the ones doing these things as you well know.
    And as you also pointed out usually HR does NOT have the power. Where does that leave the poor harassed individual?

    IF you take the sexualized portion out of the conversation, you may also lose the righteous indignation that can serve to drive the conversation towards a fair and honest solution.

  2. Stephanie

    YES! Transparency. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I remember a time when top sales rep harassed his assistant. She reported it and it was pushed under the rug. She reported a second incident. Nothing. I quit, told a recruiter to call and recruit her away. Thank god she got out before it got any worse.

    OT: Laurie, how do you feel about the bullshit emails HR or some leader sends out after someone has been fired. Can we please stop this practice? I’m not saying not to communicate it, I’m saying can we stop making it sound like the person toddled off to something better and is “fine”? Or am I way off base?