How Does Your Company Handle Reports of Employee Harassment?

I create a lot of content in my work. That content is used for different media, platforms and purposes, whether they’re written, spoken or visual. However, no matter what form that content ultimately takes, it’s successful reception usually comes down to two things: how I deliver a message and who I’m delivering it to, or, my audience.

For instance, when I’m writing my blog, my delivery can be more personal and creative. Its execution can be fun, even edgy. When I’m writing content for a client’s blog, I have to scale back on the edgy. I have to be more cautious and thoughtful to protect the organization’s brand, to consider its place in the global market, and try to anticipate how potential customers or stakeholders might react to it.

Not that I don’t consider how people might react to my blog. I do. But my blog’s content dwells in the space between diversity and inclusion, the media and marketing. All of which have been known to create very strong reactions in people. Therefore, some push back is not only expected, if I don’t get any I’ve been known to say, hmmm. My message must not have been provocative enough this week; no one cared enough to engage.

There are nuances in almost every kind of message, but while a word has a specific meaning, that meaning can be distorted if it’s poorly delivered. Thus, certain messages – like my clients’ –  must be handled carefully.

That was my first thought when I read Inc.’s Do These 8 Things Immediately When an Employee Reports Harassment. The article discussed organizational culture, and presented a list to essentially advise brands how to prepare for, and react to, whistleblowing. But some of the items indirectly dealt with how to effectively deliver or convey a message.

The target audience in this situation is likely uncomfortable, so the eight are at least partially geared to convey a comforting and considerate response: We’re listening. We care. We will respond in a way that has your best interests at heart.

I wonder how many companies, and leaders in those companies, are prepared to deliver and mean a powerful message like that?

Many, many years ago, I reported an incident of harassment. It’s funny because when it happened I didn’t immediately identify it as harassment. I just thought it was rudeness. It was only after I spoke to a family member, who was able to supply some much needed context, that I realized I had to say something.

I wear my hair natural, and at the time of the incident it was very long. My hairstyle of choice was what I call a crown. I used a headband to push it up off my neck and shoulders, and it would spill over and hang down around my face. Think Sideshow Bob, only cuter and much less offensive. At least I thought so.

Anyway, one day, this older white man at work, we’ll call him J, was unable to resist rubbing the top of my hair. Of course, I thought that was extremely rude. Even at that tender age I knew how political black hair can be, and I knew that this man was old enough to know better than to touch me without permission.

But I didn’t want to make a scene. I had not yet delved deep into my subsequent coverage of the diversity and inclusion space, so knowledge of microaggressions, and the nuances and historical significance of his actions were lost on me until I laughingly recounted the incident, and instead of cracking jokes about rude coworkers, my older female relative was livid.

“Do you know what that means?” she asked me, angrily.

No, I told her, confused. I did not. She broke down the significance of rubbing a black person’s head from a historical perspective. Apparently, it was common for slave overseers to rub their slaves’ heads for luck, especially the children’s.

As she spoke, that weird, random head rub morphed into a mélange of badness, disrespect, a lack of autonomy over one’s own person. It turned me into a curiosity, something “other,” and cared not at all for the time and thought that goes into styling and caring for my coiffure. Worse, I had unknowingly been unfairly placed in an infantile, even patronizing position. I thought, wow. That’s deep.

Still, I sought to minimize the damage. After all, I didn’t know that this sudden history lesson had anything to do with what actually happened. Hmmmph.

In the end, that didn’t matter because hidden meanings or not, J never should have put his hands on me. We were at work. He was a peer, and it was completely inappropriate. And the message he sent, whether it was deliberately or carelessly given, was that he could do what he wanted with my hair, and to a degree, with me.

Which brings me back to the list. Now, I’m no HR expert, nor am I an HR practitioner, so I can’t speak to how thorough or legally sound these eight items are, but to his credit, my boss at the time did many of the steps listed in the aforementioned article.

He expressed empathy, asked for details, etc. But when I said I didn’t intend to take the matter further, he didn’t push it, and that was okay. My intention in stepping forward was simply to inform him of what happened. Then, if that person stepped out of line again, any negative reaction from me would not be a surprise, and he seemed content to let me have my way.

I don’t know if he ever spoke of the incident to anyone else. I’m inclined to think so, but there was no follow up – the last item on the list – so I can’t say for sure. J was subsequently fired from the company, but I doubt his misstep with me had much if anything to do with it.

I’m not holding a grudge either. It actually took me a minute to even remember his name as I wandered down this little memory lane. I told that tale to say this. If you are a leader, and an employee comes to you to report an incident of bad behavior, be careful how you respond.

How you handle delicate situations like reports of harassment can do a lot to impact your internal culture, your company’s external brand, its ability to engage, recruit and retain top talent, and the list goes on. As a leader, you may not like or want to be the recipient of a particular message, but know that your reactions will convey one in return. Make sure it’s the right one.

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