Alyssa Milano requested her followers use #metoo just over a year ago. Since then, we have all become extremely aware of the scope of unreported sexual harassment incidents. Employers’ standards for preventing harassment have been raised. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s most recent guidance includes “create and maintain an environment in which employees feel comfortable reporting harassment to management.”
The fact is people who are not in power are not comfortable reporting much of anything to management. Organizational psychology has demonstrated that people impose censorship on themselves when communicating upward even when their intent is constructive. People impose this self-censorship for a number of reasons including, fearing negative consequences, not wanting to embarrass their supervisor, not wanting to appear critical, and feeling uncertain. The brain hates uncertainty and when faced with uncertainty often defaults to inaction.
Power changes the way people think. People who are in power think about things at a distance and place emphasis on outcome. They look at what they want to achieve, not so much how to get there. This distance makes them less sensitive to the efforts that need to be made or details that must be managed. This compounds the difficulty of creating an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting harassment.
Though people may imagine what it is like to be in another person’s situation, they cannot truly understand another’s situation. You can’t walk in someone else’s shoes, because you have a different history of life experiences. People who have never experienced sexual harassment or other abusive behavior may not be able to imagine being silent. Being abused devalues the individual. A person who does not feel valued has no voice.
Having a voice comes when the person feels valued and treated as a legitimate stakeholder. Employee voice is well-documented in organizational psychology. Whether the nurse has the voice to alert the surgeon of the missing sponge before closing the patient demonstrates the power of employee voice. Wise employers will take measures to treat all employees in a manner that reduces the power gap.
Having a policy and annual training scratches the surface. Employers should examine their complaint policy looking for the power gap. Soften legal terms and threatening words. Broaden the prohibition of harassment beyond illegal harassment. Do not put limits on protection from retaliation. Focus on the company’s desire to provide all employees an environment where they can do their best work. Encourage bystander reporting and a sense of community.
Provide training casually, in shorter, frequent communications. Train managers to become aware of and address little cultural problems or micro-incivilities. Recognize micro-incivilities are a power play. Work together with your management team to establish a bright line of civility. Agree on maintaining and holding each other accountable to that standard to reduce to the power gap. View all questions and concerns from employees as a measure of their openness, their voice. Use the opportunity to treat them as legitimate stakeholders to maintain a healthy and respectful workplace.