Are we ready to take this issue seriously?
As the father of three girls (and one boy), I can see how damaging sexual harassment can be in the workplace and to everyone involved. A stray comment here, an inappropriate joke there, and suddenly you have created a hostile work environment, one that is particularly volatile toward women.
A recent lawsuit by Gretchen Carlson, a television commentator and book author, against CEO Roger Ailes from the Fox News Network was settled recently; Carlson was awarded $20M by parent company 21st Century Fox out of court, according to sources who spoke to Vanity Fair. There's one other sexual harassment lawsuit by Andrea Tantaros, who was on The Five talk show on Fox, that is still pending.
The lawsuits allege a culture of harassment, one where inappropriate jokes were commonplace and there was an expectation with the women working there to look the other way. I have seen how this works. At one former employer years ago, the sales team in particular put up with sexual jokes and comments. It was an accepted practice. One manager even started every meeting with inappropriate jokes, according to a colleague who attended them at the time.
Fortunately, I remember how my friend eventually dealt with the issue. She talked to her boss, and the boss confronted the sales manager (with details from an anonymous source) and asked him to stop telling jokes. When he did, it sent a message to the entire team. The international sales manager at the time was also a friend of mine, and he told me that the jokes became less and less common. In many cases, it takes one person to object to inappropriate behavior to stem the tide.
That's because, in most cases, sexual harassment becomes an accepted practice over time. It might start with a few subtle jokes at a meeting, maybe a few harmless comments about a movie or a television show, but quickly becomes so commonplace and widespread that few employees (apart from the women who are victims of the abuse) know it has gotten out of hand. It's a bit like a virus that infects a small number of people, then grows into a disease that infects everyone.
Lawsuits, confrontations, company policies--they help somewhat. But what really needs to happen is that it needs to end completely. Everyone at the company, and I mean everyone, has to take a stand against the practice of making jokes and comments. It needs to be something that is completely unacceptable, not just a statement in a policy manual or an isolated lawsuit.
Often, the best course of action is to stop someone before they even get started. I've done this many times. When someone starts telling a "colorful" joke, I put up my hand and smile. "Don't want to hear it..." I say in no uncertain terms. It's much easier to do that before the joke even starts and becomes even more awkward.
I also tell my kids, two of whom are grown women now: If there's anything inappropriate about a conversation, ignore it, walk away, and tell someone in authority if it gets out of hand. My advice is clear: Don't let it happen at all.
Here's my challenge for you. Will you become that person who objects to workplace harassment? Will you become the employee at meetings who says this is not acceptable, who stops someone when the jokes start, who decides to put up the road block and object to the culture of sexual harassment?
My hope is that a case like the one with Gretchen Carlson leads to a better understanding of how sexual harassment is a virus. It can gain acceptance in a company over time. Like people who become more vigilant about terrorist activity, if you see something you should say something. Every time. Always.
Disclosure: I've worked as a freelance reporter for Fox News in the past.