(WOMENSENEWS)–Bullying has earned a spot on the national stage, as presidential candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush trade insults like “loser” and “liar.”
Although the news media have made a big deal about this public incivility, such barbs–and worse–are nothing new for women in the workplace. A casual online search about female executives reveals a floodgate of labels from “bitch” to “bossy,” the kinds of epithets that can make professional environments entirely unwelcoming for women.
Crossing from politics to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley, executives Carly Fiorina, Marissa Meyer and Meg Whitman are no strangers to public and professional attacks, yet what is particularly disheartening is evidence from a recent Stanford study on the experiences of senior women working in technology; an environment that is historically male-dominated, yet supposedly becoming more open to women and people of color.
Results of this research shed some unflattering light on this particular work culture. More than half the women working in technology have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work, 87 percent received demeaning comments from male colleagues and a whopping 90 percent report witnessing sexist behavior at company gatherings offsite or industry conferences.
These numbers echo other research that 95 percent of U.S. employees have experienced more mild forms of harassment, such as being put down or treated with condescension, or being ignored or excluded by supervisors or coworkers.
The harassment problem is pervasive and, indeed, complex. To make real impact, we must recognize that victims and organizations both suffer from its grasps. When workplace bullying occurs, about half of employees intentionally decrease their work effort, some intentionally slide on the quality of their work, and almost all lose time worrying about incidents.
However, organizations and advocates have an opportunity to help make meaningful strides in this necessary and urgent culture change.
An example is Pink Shirt Day, a Canadian campaign engineered by two teenagers to stand up to bullying in schools. These programs may work well for adults too, who can also use reminders about the kinds of behaviors that constitute bullying, and what to do when work colleagues engage in them.
On Feb. 24 you can join this Canadian effort by wearing a pink shirt to work. It may earn you a few honest jabs about your fashion sense, but use it as an opportunity to talk to your colleagues about the pervasiveness of bullying right here at home, and what your organization can do to curb such misbehavior.
As someone who has studied workplace bullying for the last 10 years through my work as a professor and researcher, it’s clear that efforts to empower bystanders is a wholly underutilized opportunity for organizations. Too often victims fail to report harassment for fear it will negatively impact their careers, or because they simply want to forget the incident entirely. But, it’s time to take the burden off of victims and shift responsibility to the bystanders with the greatest ability to affect real organizational change.
Surprisingly, elementary and middle school children may hold the key to better behavior. In order to reduce bullying in schools, research shows it’s important to empower students seen as “social influencers” to carry anti-bullying messaging, as a peers are more likely to be heard than teachers or principals.
Lack of Awareness, Support
Movements like Pink Shirt Day and anti-bullying campaigns in schools are successful because there is a clear awareness that bullying has to stop. It cannot continue.
Where is that same awareness and groundswell of support in the American workplace? Why hasn’t it yet caught on that sexual harassment, innuendo and inappropriate language have no place? Because it’s hard to call out one’s colleagues for this kind of conduct, and not everyone may be in a position to do so. So, what’s a well-meaning employee to do?
The Center for American Progress offered up a solution called “It’s On Us,” aimed at shifting the narrative around mistreatment, specifically sexual assault, from one that is focused on the victim to one that is focused on bystanders through empowerment, messaging, education and open dialogue.
While primarily focused on college campuses, the efforts are expanding to local communities and are intended to encourage conversation and educate bystanders about available resources. Organizations could easily emulate such campaigns and help utilize peers to set the tone and culture of zero tolerance policies in organizations.
Using workplace social influencers to curb mistreatment, alongside other strategies like clear personnel policies, and use of an ethics hotline to report misconduct can go a long way to shift the current workplace climate. Just as key employees are seen as thought leaders in different areas of the business, we have an opportunity to extend their reach towards setting the tone for proper workplace conduct, too.
While asking those with influence to shut down inappropriate conversations is not an insignificant request, the message will be clear and empowering to other employees to participate in and contribute to a civilized workplace environment when even the most visible role models are on board.