By Teresa McQueen, Corporate Counsel, Legal
October of 1991 was the first time many people ever thought about sexual harassment. Millions watched as Anita Hill stood before an all-male U.S. Senate committee, recalling sexually charged incidents that occurred at the hands of her former supervisor, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Her dramatic, sometimes graphic testimony failed to stop Thomas’ confirmation to the Court, but it started a conversation. Workers everywhere began sharing their own personal experiences of sexual harassment, until it became clear what happened to Hill was hardly an isolated incident. The American workplace was in crisis, and it needed to change.
Most organizations responded quickly, putting new policies in place, and adding mandatory anti-harassment sessions to their training programs. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, guaranteeing protection to women in the workplace. It seemed like the culture had shifted.
It had not.
We learned this more than 25 years later. The catalyst? A series of damning investigative reports revealed a virtual epidemic of sexual harassment hiding just beneath the surface of the American workplace. It stretched from the media to politics, from the arts to the tech sector and beyond. But this time, when thousands of individuals came forward with stories of workplace mistreatment, the culture shift we’d been promised in the ‘90s finally arrived. The #MeToo movement tore through the American workplace like a hurricane. The rules of professional behavior had suddenly, irrevocably changed. What was once tolerated as routine was—and is now—deemed unacceptable.
A Recent Case In Point
A workplace “rife with fear and intimidation” is how independent investigators reporting on allegations of sexual harassment by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described the work environment of the Governor’s Executive Chambers. A toxic workplace culture that not only enabled harassing conduct, but also “created a hostile work environment overall.” Staggering.
The workplace woes plaguing the Governor’s Executive Chambers and its toxic environment are a recurring bellwether for workplaces everywhere. Whether in the field, packinghouse or the boardroom, the type of conduct described in the investigator’s report continues to happen in workplaces across the globe. It stands as a stark reminder that unprofessional behavior, abusive conduct, and incivility—left unchecked—will negatively impact workplace culture and inevitably escalate into legally actionable conduct.
Civility As a Focal Point
The fact is, encouraging civility in the workplace goes far beyond simple “manners”—things like saying “please” and “thank you” and being nice. It’s about building the kinds of relationships between team members that can sustain a healthy, productive workplace through good times and bad. This means being able to have difficult conversations while maintaining those relationships. Setting aside stereotypical gender and cultural myths that excuse potentially legally actionable conduct. It also means knowing how to stand up for yourself without trampling all over somebody else. It’s essential to maintaining the overall health of an organization…any organization. If the company can’t find a way to ensure its workers are treated with honesty and respect, the company will ultimately suffer for it.
The danger is not just if the company handles these issues “wrong,” it may face a lawsuit. The greater danger is, by failing to deal with workplace harassment correctly, the company sets itself up for a host of problems that will ultimately affect the bottom line. Employees who feel unsafe or that they are being mistreated may become less effective, while other valuable workers will seek better opportunities elsewhere. Then there’s the threat of public exposure. Websites like Glassdoor.com allow disgruntled employees to air the company’s dirty laundry for the entire world to see, robbing it of its ability to attract top talent in the future. In other words, failure to deal with workplace civility right now, in the right way, is putting the company’s profitability at risk.
Below are some important reminders when it comes to creating and maintaining a workplace free from abusive or harassing conduct.
Ethics: Ethics in the workplace is more than simply being honest with your co-workers. The concept of ethics in the workplace is broad; encompassing the notion of fair-play, equality and providing the support necessary to accomplish the task(s) at hand.
Civility: Disagreeing with co-workers on how to accomplish a specific task or harboring a strong dislike for a co-worker is never an excuse for incivility or abusive behavior. Finding yourself unable to engage in a job-related discussion professionally and calmly is a good indicator that distance, or assistance is needed.
Strength: Finding yourself on the receiving end of abusive behavior or unprofessional conduct can be shocking and momentarily debilitating. Finding that inner strength—in the moment or afterwards—to calmly respond (e.g., “That behavior is inappropriate.”), disengage (e.g., “Let’s talk about this when things have cooled down.”), or to report the behavior if it continues, is important.
Action: Beyond the obligations of an employee, there are three additional responsibilities every workplace leader should consider:
• The responsibility not to abuse your position when interacting with subordinates.
• The responsibility to serve as an ethical / professional role model.
• The responsibility to promote an ethical / professional work environment.
State and federal laws mandate that employers create a workplace free from harassing conduct. Despite these mandates such conduct continues to negatively impact workplaces of all variety and sizes. Training efforts and strict “zero tolerance” policies do make a difference. But it is the day-to-day interactions with our co-workers, and our unwillingness to accept anything less than a civil and professional work environment, that will effectively stop a downward trajectory of an otherwise positive workplace culture.
Abusive and harassing conduct can only exist in environments and cultures that allow it. Ending workplace harassment and abusive conduct begins with ethics and civility carried forward by inner strength and action.
 The Report of Investigation provides important insight into the types of harassing conduct found to be offensive by those working in and around the Gov. Executive Chambers. The report may be viewed at: https://ag.ny.gov/sites/default/files/2021.08.03_nyag_-_investigative_report.pdf
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