In light of the #metoo movement, one thing I continue to see is people admonishing victims for not speaking up sooner. It’s the ultimate defense: if it was so bad, why didn’t you speak up sooner? The thought is that we are all just that comfortable with speaking up against someone higher up or even a peer when they say something that makes us uncomfortable. Kate Bischoff has a great post about how we need to Let Go of Welcomeness in these situations. And I agree because we tend to brush things off that probably shouldn’t be brushed off.
I was recently in this position myself. Someone I had respected, due to experience and previous interactions, left me feeling stunned, hurt and, quite honestly, stupid. My confidence was shot. Now, if I’m being honest, I had left previous interactions with this person feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing, but this person has much more experience than I do, so I would typically defer to them. I have challenged this person in the past and we were able to walk away from the conversation having found some middle ground. But not this time. This time this person meant to be mean, meant to make me feel bad about myself and question my judgment. This person, a professional adult, told me to “Shut up.”
And here’s the thing: I questioned myself the rest of the day of whether or not I should speak up.
This situation was not harassment. It wasn’t bullying. It could lead to one or the other, but this was one interaction and therefore doesn’t meet the requirements. And was it really that bad? What if I was just over-reacting? Maybe I was just being too sensitive. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. Since turning 40, I cry easier, especially when I’m frustrated or angry. Maybe it was me.
But the feelings hung on. All. Day. Long. I left work early because I wasn’t getting anything done. Again, I went back and forth, should I say something? Am I just over-reacting?
I finally decided to talk with a trusted friend within the organization. She confirmed that while the situation wasn’t harassment or bullying, I also wasn’t over-reacting. She helped me decide to tell my boss about it. She helped me remember that while being an ass at work isn’t against the law, we don’t have to accept it.
I was fortunate that I had someone to talk to about it. I believe this is who HR needs to be. Employees need a safe place to talk to about these situations to help them decide whether or not to say anything, almost the difference between telling and tattling.
Most employees do not want to get another employee “in trouble,” but they most certainly don’t want to work with or for people who are jerks. And the problem with working with jerks is situations like mine tend to not get reported which means no one is tracking that maybe someone needs some coaching or a performance improvement plan. Just because a situation isn’t harassment doesn’t mean something cannot be done.
What we can do
We need to do more than just encourage staff to “report issues.” We need to be a place where employees can come and talk through issues. Let employees know that you are a safe place, but keeping them aware that sometimes you do need to take things further. When I do an investigation, I always tell the person bringing the concern that we keep things private, but things cannot improve if we don’t address it with who the situation needs to be addressed with.
Be present for your staff. Listen to them. It takes time to build a relationship and for people to trust, especially if there wasn’t trust in the past.
Why I’m writing about this
I’m still debating in my head about this. But I know it’s important for even these small, “not such a big deal” stories to be told. We need to call out the jerks. We need to stop the “that’s just how they are.” We need to stop protecting the “star employees” and let them act however they want just because they get the job done. They may not be harassing or bullying or doing anything illegal, but that does NOT mean we have to accept the behavior.
As my friend Jon said in our recently posted podcast: “You never know who’s going to read what you’re saying, and it has an impact.” [and this wasn’t about this topic, but it’s fitting.]