Last year, while conducting a module as part of a Leadership Development Programme for a company, I was leading a discussion on how leaders should handle bullying, bias and sexual harassment. One of the female delegates related the following story …
She told us that her immediate boss had started making inappropriate advances towards her, touching her inappropriately and getting into her personal space while making inappropriate suggestions.
Naturally, my response was, “Did you report the matter to his boss?”
“Yes, I did,” was her response.
“And what did he say?” I naturally asked.
Very quietly, she said, “He said that he didn’t believe my boss would do something like that because he’s an elder in his church.”
Just pause right there, take a long sip of your coffee and reflect on that. Put yourself in that woman’s shoes (that’s what empathising is). How would you have felt if that had happened to you?
It’s difficult for men to fully understand how she must have felt, but ladies would be able to identify with her. Gentlemen, imagine if that were your adult daughter who came home from work and told you that story. You would be furious and want to go in to see someone at the company (not that that’s the right thing to do, but you would have wanted to).
But, apart from the emotions involved in that situation, look at what it reveals about the culture and leaders of the company …
The old boys club was obviously still very much a force to be reckoned with, where men stick together and blindly side with one another against women.
And so this woman was quietly trying to go about her job with a boss who was sexually harassing her probably well aware that he could get away with it. Chances are, she was not his first and only victim …
Then, in a session I conducted for another company, when we were discussing the problem of toxic masculinity in leadership and I mentioned that in such cases, women are often not taken seriously, one of the male delegates spontaneously responded, “That’s so true. If one of our female directors makes a proposal, our CEO won’t accept it, but, if one of the male directors says exactly the same thing, he readily accepts the idea.”
Now, before you huff and puff and say to yourself that something like that would never happen under your watch at your company, consider that there may indeed be women in your company who belong to a sisterhood of silence – women who are being bullied, who are experiencing bias and sexual harassment, and who are just keeping quiet because they have identified you as a leader who simply stands by while these things happen instead of you being a leader who stands up for people (men or women) who are victims of bullying, bias and sexual harassment.
It takes courage to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves. It’s so much easier to turn a blind eye. Describing a situation where someone showed little regard for the plight of someone else, my mother used to use the expression, “Blow you, Jack, my parachute’s open.”
So, while your parachute may indeed be open, as a leader, you have a responsibility to stand up for those who are in freefall in your company because they are the victims of some form of bullying, bias or sexual harassment.
You don’t want to get to the end of your career, look back at those who worked with and under you and realise, to your regret, that you were the person who could have/should have taken action to protect or defend them but you just didn’t care enough to do so. Regret is a terrible thing. The reason for that is that you can’t do anything about what you regret. That’s why you experience the regret.
Make a decision today that you will stop standing by and start standing up for those who need your support.
Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net and @HRFuturemag. He is an internationally recognised authority on leadership competencies for the future and teaches experienced and younger business leaders how to lead with empathy, compassion, integrity, purpose and agility. He has been an Age Management Coach for two decades.