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There is a corporate speechwriter who refuses to open a speech with a joke. He explains, “Three things can happen when you tell a joke in a speech, and two of them are bad: the audience laughs; no one laughs, or the joke offends the listeners, and you’ve lost all hope of coming across as credible.”  Expert speakers are thorough in researching their audiences, because of the danger of offending people.

Sloppy research often results in offensive mistakes. Former Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann kicked off her presidential campaign in her hometown, Waterloo, Minnesota. She said “John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa. That’s the kind of spirit that I have, too.” To Bachmann’s dismay, Waterloo’s John Wayne was not the actor but the serial killer!

Cultural illiteracy is also a common cause. Many people have regretted the use of a wrong word or making rude remarks. This ignorance is more of a problem when it comes to sexual harassment.  There are differences in opinion based on multiple factors such as our religion, where we live in the world, male/female roles and many other differences in points-of-view.

Reuter reporter, Chris Hahn, briefly describes the issue: “Americans differ widely in their views of what constitutes sexual harassment, with age and race, as well as gender, throwing up dividing lines, posing a challenge for those who police for such conduct in the workplace.” A Reuters/Ipsos national opinion study released the Wednesday before Christmas day 2017, found significant variations in responses. The poll asked over 3,000 adults to review eight descriptions of interactions between employees and determine if each exchange was sexual harassment.  The below table summarizes selected findings of the poll.

What can we learn from these findings? Do we know sexual harassment when we see it?  Statements 1, 2, 3, and 5 demonstrate that respondents were widely divided on what qualifies as sexual harassment. Findings 4, 5, and 6 suggest that age, race, and gender are factors affecting how people answered the questions. The study results suggest that addressing this problem will be difficult. The variation in the responses underlines the importance of setting clear standards.

According to the New York Times, The Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in The Workplace, spearheaded by Kathleen Kennedy among others, will be headed by Anita Hill. Beyond the Hollywood world, there are actions leaders can take to move this issue from front-page news to ongoing transformation.

·       Define clear policies and procedures to reflect acceptable culture with actionable consequences regardless of title or position. It is easier to recognize behavior when we know what it looks like.

·       Invite dialogue in the business environment without fear of accusation. Perhaps set up an anonymous line where concerns can be voiced in addition to the Human Resources Department. Leverage existing Employee Assistance Programs were established.

·       Reinforce inclusion and respect. It starts at the top and employees must see leadership model the organization’s values to replicate them.

·       Encourage ongoing commitment. Empower employees to create a healthy. Create respectful environment as a personal responsibility towards one another. An informal document can be signed perhaps to signal commitment about speaking up.

Given recent events, in particular, the #metoo movement, we have a unique opportunity to address an issue that has been simmering for generations. Let’s not miss this chance.

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