The assistants of the world have known the sexual harassment situation for a long, long, long time. It has been a taboo and stigmatized subject and the cause of much personal shame and embarrassment. It is discomfort of the highest order with symptoms of nausea, headaches, and sleepless nights. Sexual harassment can feel like a terrorist attack because you rarely know when or how it is going to happen.The assistants of the world don’t only work in Hollywood and not only in America but everywhere. They are 95-98% female. These women are the backbone of their companies, the face of the company culture, and the right arms to their executives.
Note: Men are sexually harassed too but given the worldwide demographics, women are the primary targets.
Many of these women have been bullied, humiliated, abused, and sexually harassed over a long period of time. They have willed themselves to stay quiet out of abject fear and simply not having any roadmap for what to do. These behaviors have somehow become their “normal.” They sit at their desks isolated and alone in the problem, often paralyzed, terrified to speak up in fear of retaliation. They avoid and resist conflict at every turn and most would be loathe to bring charges.
The assistants of the world are not highly paid influential movie stars and they wonder if this new spotlight being shone on sexual harassment will make a difference now? Do they really have any new clout? Despite the media attention, the fear of speaking up is not going to go away in a minute. It took a very long time to get to this place so it’s going to take a while to move us to a brighter, more enlightened culture of respect.
The media attention is beginning to reveal the high price we are paying for permitting these toxic behaviors to persist. (See the October 19th Washington Post article where I am quoted about sexual harassment of assistants.) The trauma of harassment does not only last the day it happens or the week or even the month, but for years. If it is true that thousands of women have been the target of workplace harassment then it must follow that we have thousands of traumatized staffers helping to run companies.
That begs the question – If an individual is in emotional pain and turmoil, distracted by feelings of embarrassment, anger, depression, betrayal, disappointment, and regret, is it possible to expect a high level of productivity from that individual? The answer is a crystal clear NO WAY.
This obviously affects the bottom line, costing companies dearly in the form of revolving doors of staff and plummeting profits. The cost of protecting high producing harassers results in low morale, sick time, and legal costs to settle in court. Gretchen Carlson settled for $20 million in her lawsuit against Fox News.
It would seem from all the media attention that some harassers will be held accountable and may end up in jail and/or lose their jobs. But many will not.
How about those who are still there?
Education is the answer. I am not a fan of firing people until an effort has been made to provide education and coaching. If harassers are fired without coaching, they will just get hired at a new company and will repeat the same pattern of abuse. We must break the cycle in order to be free of sexual harassment and that happens through awareness and coaching.
Tomorrow is a new day to stop blaming the victims for sexual harassment. Here are four suggestions for a long-term fix so we can realistically move forward in a healthier and more respectful way as individuals and as companies.
- Shining a light begins at the top. Assistants agree that no real and long-lasting change will happen in our workplace unless CEOs and upper management leaders commit to put muscle into zero-tolerance policies against harassment which is a form of workplace bullying.
- When sexual harassment happens to you End it right when it starts. Know that you are the CEO of You, Incorporated and as such, you have every right to speak the clear and confident words: “I don’t know what gave you the idea that I want that, but I don’t. That will be the last time. If it happens again, I will take action.” “I won’t do that. I don’t feel comfortable and that is not what I was hired to do.” “We need to talk about what just happened. You cannot speak to me like that. It is not productive or effective.”
- #MeToo Support Groups Expert therapists speak to all staff as a way to offer realistic and healthy ways to heal the wounds. Peer-to-peer mentoring can be an ongoing company endorsed and supported activity.
- Orientations for new managers. With guidance from experts and involvement by assistants, companies can create orientations for all new managers on the adherence to a culture of respect and professionalism which applies to all staff at every level. Accountability systems need to be implemented which make it safe to come forward to report infractions.
- Sensitivity Training for both men and women to remove the stigma and taboos. We can no longer blame our victims for abuse. In order for real change to occur, we need a big dose of empathy education. Many men have no idea about the depth and breadth of this problem so how can we ask them to be a part of the solution unless they have information?
- Education and training in colleges are critical. Universities can add classes in emotional intelligence and how to manage/lead human beings with a special emphasis on gender differences.
Leadership expert Simon Sinek (StartWithWhy.com) challenges us to “Imagine a world where we feel safe at work.” He knows what I know which is at this moment in time people do not feel safe at work. If leaders doubt this, I suggest asking their teams.
We have much work to do to have a workforce who feel safe. Safe to be free to do great work without fear of sexual harassment. Safe to speak truth to power without fear of retaliation. Safe to expect a culture of respect & accountability when issues arise.
It is high time that we break the silence and the patterns of abuse. What is clear is to commit to building cultures of respect is a smart business strategy that will not only benefit our current workforce but our daughters and sons and generations beyond.
It is completely within our reach to leave this as our legacy. It’s our choice. It’s a new day. Isn’t it time?
Resources About Workplace Bullying
2017 Worldwide Workplace Bullying Survey Results
Book: Taming the Abrasive Manager by Dr. Laura Crawshaw
About the Writer: Bonnie Low-Kramen worked for 25 years as the Personal Assistant to Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis. She is an international trainer and speaker and the bestselling author of “Be the Ultimate Assistant.” Bonnie is speaking in 11 countries in 2017.