Warning: sex stereotypes at work
October 24, 2017
Gender stereotypes and their impact
October 25, 2017

Is there a 'Harvey' in your company?

[hhab-author] [hhab-social]

What are you going to do about it?


We have all, I’m sure, been shocked by the headlines and the details around the sexual harassment allegations made about Harvey Weinstein. Whilst I knew this kind of behaviour was not entirely a thing of the past it’s still hard to believe that so many people knew and said nothing or at least nothing effective. You have to wonder how the HR function are feeling right now?

So, what are you going to do to ensure there’s not a ‘Harvey’ in your organisation?  Or at least not a mini Harvey? And how well are the behavioural norms in the organisation setting a culture that will shield women (and some men) from this type of behaviour? (I say men because sooner or later we are going to see allegations from men about being sexually harassed.)

Are your behavioural norms helping or hindering?

Research on cultural norms tells us two things which are relevant here. One, people want to be part of the in-group and they will modify their own values to be accepted and to remain in the group. The effect is strong and insidious. People will go to elaborate lengths to justify aligning their behaviour to the norm of the powerful in-group. They will also protect themselves by turning a ‘blind eye ‘ or normalising behaviour which is not normal.

We have seen quite a lot of evidence of this with ‘those in the know’ justifying why they didn’t speak out. It’s totally understandable. But that’s doesn’t make it OK.  When faced with expulsion from the group we go into survival mode and that’s an adaptive stance when the danger comes from a very powerful person who has influence across many groups you need to below to.

What’s your cultural virus?

The second area of relevant research is how your culture influences the behavioural norms. Most of the work has been done on honesty. Research by Dan Ariely the behaviour economist suggests we are all a bit dishonest and the level can change based on the culture and the norms around us.

In his book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely, describes studies he carried out with 30,000 people. What he found is that few people are very dishonest, there aren’t lots of bad apples (or lots of Harvey’s), but almost everyone is a bit dishonest. We all might do something we would be ashamed of if it became public and we are more likely to carry out such behaviour given the ‘right’ circumstances.

Ariely discredits the theory that a few people are really bad and ‘contaminate’ others. He says businesses should worry about the number of people who contravene the behavioural standards a little and how this can be like a virus, others catch it.  His research shows that most people want two opposing things; to lie or in other ways be dishonest (steal the pen’s, make personal calls, tell belittling jokes about women) but not so much that they damage their self-image as a ‘nice’ person. He says people rationalise their dishonesty and poor behaviour, they say to themselves things like; “It was only a small roll of tape, everyone else does it”, “I worked longer hours this week so deserve the long lunch”, “It was just ‘locker room’ talk.” ( Sound familiar?)

The research shows group behaviour and norms play a huge role in enabling a culture where dishonesty (or honesty), strong behavioural standards (or poor behaviour) flourishes. For example, people were much more likely to cheat on an exercise when they saw someone from their group was cheating. Sexual harassment is much more likely to happen if other people (especially senior people) are doing it in the company.

One handy brain feature that helps us do all this and still feel ok about ourselves is that the brain seems to have evolved to hold different events, emotions and beliefs in ‘separate containers’ figuratively speaking.  We separate our different ‘selves’ and keep our narrative about ourselves balanced to manage conflicts in what we do in one situation verses another. So, you would never cheat on your partner but It’s ok be make lurid remarks about the receptionist’s outfit or the directors high heels. We don’t think about our behaviour in a consistent way. The circumstances will make it ok to behave poorly in one context and not in another: “It was a boy’s night out if she was uncomfortable with the language and touching she shouldn’t have come along.” Or “It was the Christmas party the boss always gets a bit out of hand. Smart women know to avoid him after 9pm.”

Author Michael  Shermer says  we “bend and distort data and evidence through a process called motivated reasoning.”  When we do this we look for and find information and experiences that support our current view of the world and our assumptions about what is sensible in different contexts. Our filters and self-interest distort the information or rationalise it to make it fit our desires and actions.

How worried should you be?

So that’s the theory, but how worried should you be about your company? Well Ariely found the prevailing culture is key. And the behavioural norms ‘allowed’ in the culture depends on the subtle signals that say what is acceptable and what is punished.  So, little things may help us slide into bigger issues. That’s why it’s important to manage the ‘little things’.

What are the norms in companies?

As part of the research for our book Brain-savvy Wo+man we surveyed men and women in the workplace. A couple of the questions were about behavioural norms. How frequently had men and women experienced derogatory language about their gender, jokes and poor behaviour directed at their gender?

When we reviewed the survey data the number of comments on this was a surprise: 51% of women said they had experienced jokes and behaviour which belittled their gender and 38% said they had experienced derogatory language directed at them or people of their gender. Only 19% and 13% of men respectively had experienced the same issues.

There were also concerns about how women were talked about in the workplace. “Locker talk. It is more than accepted, it is applauded as amusing, and successful.” This was a comment from a mature women in the legal sector who experienced this dispite her seniority.

Another said “Women are still experiencing terrible sexism – one who worked as a post delivery person was crippled by it – she was either castigated for being too friendly/sexy, or for not being friendly enough. While this came from the mainly male workforce, it also came from female colleagues.“

And a  young women early in her career told us about the experience of unacceptable expectations. She said “I work in the Third Sector and at events have come up against disgusting, perverse behaviour by supporters who still hold sexist beliefs and ideas about how women can be treated. The company have been unsure of how to react and there was no formal plan put in place to help deal with this. When I complained, I was told by my manager that that was the nature of fundraising and I was naive if I thought that it didn’t happen anymore.”

Other research participants’ comments were a mid-level person saying sexual harassment had severely impacted her confidence and undermined her position in the company.  And another women told us when she complained about a senior male colleague making lude suggestions she was disiplined and when later he complained about her refusing to say ‘good morning’ to him, she was fired.

Another woman told us: “[I was] bullied after refusing to let a more senior person make inappropriate sexual remarks.”

The worrying point of all this is it’s setting up a culture where it’s OK to do a Harvey.

So whats your role as HR?

There were also a rather worrying number of comments about HR not taking such complaints seriously, brushing them under the carpet or penalising the woman who had raised the issue.

You could think behaviour like this went out in the 1990’s but clearly not for over 50% of women.

My advice for what it’s worth is this. Zero tolerance. Now the stuff about norms and power of course is impacting your reaction to that advice. You are probably saying things like, “It’s alright for her to say that she doesn’t have to put her job on the line.” I don’t give the advice lightly or from a theoretical position.  Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience of dealing with this type of behaviour. It comes from many years of working in the city when the culture was terrible.  When I joined one bank I found numerous women had been let go with very generous packages. Digging into why the policy had been ignored I found they had all had ‘affairs’ with the division head. We also had senior people going to lap dancing clubs as client entertainment, calendar girl posters on the trading floor and the Christmas party was a gropers paradise. Even a company flat which was used for seduction and which had video cameras.  One of the perks for the security guards was reviewing the tapes! (Of course, today the city has largely cleaned up their act …)

What to do

If you think or you know your company has not handled complaints well or poor behaviour is going on get to work. It’s more important to review the application of your policies than what’s in writing. Be brave. If things have been brushed under the carpet be honest with your boss, the CEO, the Board and clean up the mess.

Get the facts, pull the files (if they were kept) and present them unemotionally. Steal yourself for strong push back. They will be in survival mode and not want to associate their leadership with poor behaviour.

Frame the conversation as protection for the organisation. The CIPD are approaching our professional standards less about how we write policy and more on how we are clear about and act on a set of principles. This is when it’s important to review your own principles, get clear about what you believe your professional responsibility is and act on it. You maybe upsetting a few people but it’s for their long-term protection and you need to speak up.

I know this is scary. I remember when I was HRD for a global bank division one of our top sales people was accused of setting up a junior female member of staff with a potential client. We investigated including reviewing hours of phone tapes, it took a few days. During that time, the most senior leaders were visiting my office telling me we had to stop the investigation because the sales guy was too important to the business to be punish. It was very scary, I thought my job was on the line. But in the words of one of the best HR people I know ” Some things you have to be willing to be sacked for.”  In my view handling sexual harassment based on zero tolerance is one of them.

Good luck!

Comments are closed.