I Am Part of the Problem

I Am Part of the Problem: Misogyny in the Workplace

This was shared with me recently. Given …life recently, I thought it was worth sharing with others in the HR community, especially as we head into the week of #SHRM16. – Michael

Several events in the past couple of weeks have led me to turn inward. I’m debating job change with the sub-debate of whether I want to return to HR and Employee Relations. There are things I am very good at within that sphere. I enjoy being a part of creating solutions to damaged work environments and relationships. Two things this week have led me to second-guess my role in the passive advancement of misogyny in the workplace.

A little over a week ago, the victim of a terrifying rape released her victim’s statement to the predator who raped her unconscious body but got a scarily lenient sentence. Shortly thereafter, a terrorist attacked The Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, killing dozens of innocent men and women. While the two are not at all similar, the combination of events made me question the role I have played in investigation and analysis of harassment and unwelcome behavior of any kind in the workplace.

I work in an environment that is primarily male, primarily Christian, and primarily conservative. I have turned away or kept my thoughts to myself when jokes about the LGBT community are voiced, I have held my tongue when their rights are questioned. I have committed the crime of inaction and not speaking when I felt it would be damaging for my esteem or when I was unsure of if my speaking out would be supported. I’ve heard our CEO talk about the micro-aggressions women and minorities in the workplace hear day in and day out – and believe me, I have kept micro- and macro- aggressions based on my gender to myself more than I’d like to admit – but I don’t think he really knows what that feels like or what falls outside his filter. The crime here is passive, one of ignorance and carelessness. We continue to ostracize the LGBT community and all of its members by not being openly welcoming; by not broadcasting an open and protected environment, by not addressing their safety and protection when in the public, and by not recruiting within the community. Of course, our workplace probably isn’t the most open or protective, — and because our state is not protective, there is no financial incentive for us to change. But my voice does not have be silent.

I have also misapplied my voice in another area, and this is one that I see common across HR and legal departments. I cannot tell you the defensive, adrenaline-based glee an HR or legal department will take when a woman files a complaint (either within the “system” or within company-reporting mechanisms) of sex harassment. I cannot tell you the number of mindless emails I have read between said complainant and everyone else in the world to find a reason her complaint would not be valid. Of course, protecting the company is paramount, but what if we’re protecting the wrong thing? What if all of those stacks of performance reviews that show less than rock star performance or the flirtatious emails with another coworker mean absolutely nothing? What if by investigating that way, we create an environment when victims don’t come forward because they don’t want their lives examined piece by piece? Are we really victim blaming when an employee complains? I like to think of several investigations I have done where this was not the case, — where I looked at the situation in isolation and showed the appropriate compassion for the complainant. But, I know I have also fallen prey to the Eureka! moment when I find something unsavory to use against a plaintiff prior to the Company’s response or a deposition.

It hit me like a ton of bricks when I thought of it that way. Men that know this is the approach a company takes feel free to treat women as sexual objects in the workplace, they feel freer to make sexist comments, they feel okay to show the power they have over women. They know the burden of proof is on the complainant, and that everyone knows she doesn’t have a squeaky clean slate (because who does, right?). And so many women will not share what it is really like day to day. I have tried to capture for myself what it is really like to be a woman in the workplace, — but can’t believe the words I’ve written myself. Why is the bright-line test creating doubt about the employee’s record or behavior instead of finding irrefutable proof from the accused? This is a watered-down version of what defense attorneys do with rape survivors, re-victimizing them in public and on-record. I wholeheartedly believe the accused are innocent until proven guilty, — but defendants in public trial have to at least show their whereabouts and records along with the record and whereabouts of the plaintiffs. Why don’t we look at it the same way? Is it because our competitive nature kicks in when a claim is filed, getting our adrenaline running to play defense? Is it because we never liked her anyway? Is it because we’ve put up with a lot worse and never complained? Is it because we second-guess our own worth in the workplace?

I don’t have answers. I do have resolve – to give a voice to those not at the table (or those at the table but afraid), to give compassion to complaints because I know how hard it is to report, and to resist the urge to get amped up for the hunt if one falls onto my desk. Today, I am sad. For the families and community with hurt rippling from a popular club in Orlando. For a hurting rape victim working to rebuild her life with the knowledge that her strong stance has helped so many others. For women worried about reporting inappropriate sexualization of the workplace because they really just need their job. For any part I may have had in allowing these broken parts of our society to find a home in our workplace.

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Michael Vandervort

Creating Positive Workplaces Every Day

2 thoughts on “I Am Part of the Problem”

  1. This is why internal investigations are inherently flawed. I suspect this same model might apply to your “investigations” of racial or ethnic harassment as well. I appreciate your candor, but let’s be real. It’s not just biased, it’s unethical. And you just realized that now? You certainly have a lot of privilege to unpack.

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