As the news unfolded in the past week over Susan Fowler’s recent blog post about her experiences at Uber, I have been thinking deeply about finding my voice on the matter. I recalled the countless times I had been harassed and never said a thing to anyone, let alone the HR rep at whatever company I was working at the time. I have dozens and dozens of stories of inappropriate, sexually charged, comments from colleagues, winks, suggestive touches, crass jokes, and pictures shared with me that I wish I could unsee. I never called them out.
Fear of gaslighting – being accused of being oversensitive, crazy, blowing things out of proportion – is probably one of the top reasons for not reporting the umpteen incidents employees experience in the workplace. It seems no matter how high we climb the corporate ladder, we still hold back. Whether it’s gaslighting, possible retaliation, or as in Susan Fowler’s case, being totally ignored, we doubt we will be heard.
On those rare occasions when we are heard, those who fall victim to bad behavior or blatant harassment are often “handled” quietly, if at all. Issues are swept under the rug before anyone knows. So, regardless of whether the bad actor gets a warning or more severe action is taken, no one else learns from this lesson. Organizations and leaders desperate to protect their reputations and avoid litigation make it go away a fast as possible. Perhaps those who helped “clean it up” get a reality check, but as long as there is no exposure, no public shaming, no admission of guilt, we will continue to see situations like Ms. Fowler’s persist.
It was a bold move for Ms. Fowler to publicly share her story about Uber and its leadership team’s lack of attention towards her situation. The ubiquity of Uber, and attention the company is already getting in other forums, certainly gave fuel to this issue, but this is not just about tech companies gone bad. It was a rallying cry for leaders at any company, big or small, to not only open the doors for employees to be heard, but to make it clear that crossing the line is no longer tolerated and when it is crossed, action is taken.
Building a culture of open doors is not just about telling employees “my door is always open,” but actually opening that door. We had a thoughtful series of conversations on this topic at DigitalOcean (DO) over the past week. At our company all hands, we emphasized a zero-tolerance for any harassing behaviors that make our employees feel unsafe and our CEO and I both committed that, while we want people to talk with their managers and our People team first, we are 100% available to talk with any employee who is uncomfortable and prefers to talk with either of us about any issue.
Our commitment to our employees this past week has been well received, but executives making statements about their open doors is only part of the equation. Opening doors is also about ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment by proactively mitigating issues. Ensuring a safe work environment involves everything from setting policies and guidelines to conducting cross-company training beyond the online course we are required to click through when we start a new job.
One of my former employers offered a training using situational role playing to develop understanding and empathy for those who may not appreciate the severity of certain actions. It was an invaluable exercise and we do something similar with the unconscious bias training we provide to all new employees as part of their on-boarding at DO. We’ve found by raising awareness of these behaviors in realistic settings we can do a lot to set clear expectations on what acceptable and unacceptable is, and make people more aware of their impact on others.
If you see something, say something.
Despite proactive efforts, open doors, trainings and policies, harassment still happens. Sometimes, it’s an innocent mistake where a young/inexperienced employee just doesn’t realize they’ve said something wrong. Sometimes, it’s an experienced executive who’s never been called out thus doesn’t appreciate the impact of their behavior. Regardless, we cannot stay silent.
I believe every manager is accountable for reporting any incident that they observe or is reported to them as soon as possible. I also believe it’s every employee’s right to know that their company is taking action to ensure a safe workplace. However, because of corporate policy and privacy protection, we often lack the transparency of how organizations are handling situations and whether they are operating a safe place of work. We cannot, for many reasons, publicly call out every person who crosses a line, but there could be methods(*) to get ahead of this such as:
- Providing a safe forum for any employee to report an incident they’ve experienced or observed.
- Tracking anonymized incident data to look for trends including frequency of issues and resolution timeframes.
- Implementing and broadly communicating Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide hot lines, advocacy and legal counsel.
- Internal or even public communication on a company’s performance regarding harassment situations. Imagine a world where companies own unfortunate situations and say how they are resolving them and share improvement data. Scary as that may sound, I bet that if more companies shared this information, the trend of incidents would go down.
The beat goes on…
Whether it was in Twitter or in an intimate setting among friends, Susan Fowler’s story is not the first we’ve heard like this nor will it be the last. We need to continue to bring these topics front and center and commit to continuous improvement in the workplace. I’d love to hear how other leaders are handling this topic at their companies. We all benefit from learning from each other, so please share your stories in the comments.
(*) These are just suggestions, I leave the real policy and program design work to the experts 🙂