Underestimating Harassment, Power and Control

“If you wouldn’t say it or do it in front of your parents, partner or a close friend of the same or opposite sex, don’t say it, don’t do it;”

This is a line from an Employee Handbook, a line I’ve seen not just once in my career.  With recent focus on sexual harassment, this may seem like well meant advice to potential perpetrators.

The assumption with this statement is that we all have the same degree of self-regulation and understanding of what is appropriate and what is not.  The assumption is that we care what our parents, partner or friends think and that they have views against sexual harassment.  The assumption is that it matters what those close to us think.

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct. This is what matters, not what anyone else thinks of the situation.

That handbook line fails to consider the reality of sexual harassment. We are not talking about an accidental social faux pas, but about power and control.  Sexual harassment is behaviour that is unwanted and makes the receiver feel uncomfortable, so persistence after becoming aware the behaviour is unwanted constitutes an attempt to assert power.

Perpetrators get something out of their behaviour. They may not consider their behaviour as wrong, or they may even consider it to be “not that bad”.  If they don’t see anything wrong in it then they are not going to change their behaviour in front of their parents, partner or friends.

Some will know exactly that what they are doing is wrong. They can be manipulative and modify their behaviour depending on the situation, switching “mode” between work and home, or according to who they’re socialising with.

Perhaps they may be someone who is similarly controlling at home. Their family and friends may have heard them speak to their partner, or perhaps their Mum, in an equally derogatory manor.  It’s quite likely their friends, those they surround themselves with, will have similar traits.

What about those who grew up in a home where racial comments were made or misogynistic language was the norm? Many people subject to abuse within their relationships don’t identify the abuse, or they may tell their abuser that the behaviour is wrong but don’t recognise that their feelings are ignored.

Those closest to us are not always going to be the right people with whom to judge the regulation of our behaviour.

Yes, we absolutely should be expecting people to consider what they say in a work environment.  We should be asking them to consider how others feel about their words and behaviour.  However acceptable workplace behaviour cannot be defined based on the personal echo chamber of the individual involved.  We must consider that others may have different views about what is and what is not acceptable.

Someone who makes a genuine mistake, says something because they didn’t know it was wrong, will be apologetic when told they have caused offence. They will learn from the mistake and will not want to repeat the offensive behaviour.  On the other hand, someone using words and behaviour to control others won’t change their behaviour.   They are using offensive, belittling and derogatory language and behaviour to assert power.  These people do not care whose feelings they hurt and their apologies will be carefully worded to protect themselves from consequence.

Whilst I don’t doubt that the Employee Handbook line I started by quoting is well meaning, I can’t see that it is helpful. It neither encourages people to consider that others may have different views to them, nor recognises the true seriousness of sexual harassment as a tool of control.


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