More on Workplace Harassment – Comments on our Articles

Our articles on harassment and whether it goes on in the procurement world as well as the film industry did not spark as much conversation as we had hoped, but we did have two very powerful comments submitted. Both were from women and both answered our question ("does this go on in our business") with a resounding “yes”. You can read the comments at the end of the articles here and here, but just a couple of excerpts:

“…one notable occasion was after giving a presentation on the interesting, but I wouldn’t have thought overly exciting topic of accounts payable automation, where someone waited to be last in the room before approaching me. I thought he was going to ask an industry based question – but no – he reached out and touched my hair and proceeded to tell me how sexy (and etc) he thought I was”.

“Category Manager grabbing colleague in the taxi queue and kissing her out of the blue. Calling her a dirty girl in the office. Promoted to Director shortly after, incidents were reported”.

On the BBC TV breakfast show the other day, a (female) employment lawyer and a psychologist were talking about “zero tolerance”. But even that is not clear enough. If you take zero tolerance to the extreme, does that mean that I can’t say “good morning” to a female colleague? What about asking her if she’s OK, if she looks unhappy or distressed? Might that be seen as harassment by some people? Am I allowed to say “I like your new haircut”?  I mean, I might well compliment a male colleague on a smart new suit or a new beard! (But then, even a male subordinate might feel I have ulterior motives of course).

Is any form of physical contact out of the question? (I suspect the answer to that is “yes”).  Can I ever do one-to-one staff appraisals in private any more or do I need a witness? What about a single man asking a single woman in the office if she would like to go for a drink after work? Is that OK?  Is it OK once but not again if she says “no” the first time? Should I hold the door open for anyone?

So just saying “zero tolerance” is the answer is not enough I’m afraid. Perhaps we (and clearly this needs to involve some women, not just me) should try and write the equivalent of the CIPS ethics policy but about sexual harassment. If we don’t clearly define what is OK and what isn’t, I fear the danger is that we end up with segregated workplaces, with male staff terrified to even talk to their female colleagues.

But it is not just individual behaviour that needs to be addressed. What is clear from my initial conversations and the comments we had is that a big part of the problem is organisations not taking incidents seriously. This is typical (from one of the comments).

“All these examples show – nobody actions anything. Women who report are seen as trouble makers and “not mature enough” to deal discretely with what has become an expected reality in business ...  And men who behave inappropriately can’t keep on getting promoted, rewarded and cushioned throughout.”

So as well as addressing individual behaviour, there must be pressure for organisations to act on these matters with proper processes and procedures to handle complaints and incidents. That will also require the victims to push harder, we suspect, as well as wider public (and shareholder) pressure to ensure that perpetrators don’t just get a slap on the knuckles – if that.

I just hope the Weinstein affair proves to be a real force for change, and not just a brief media storm that is quickly forgotten. We just can’t have half our workforce, our friends, colleagues, partners and kids going through the sort of nonsense, pain and stress that seems far too common today.  And clearly this all applies to procurement functions as well as to Hollywood, parliament, etc.

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