In the 200+ respectful workplace trainings I’ve done in the past year, I often get a version of the following comment, “People are just too sensitive. Let’s be reasonable here. Anyone could be offended by anything.” The assumption underlying this comment is that people should only be offended by the bad stuff and just stop complaining. “Toughen up! Grow up! Be an adult!” Essentially, everyone must feel the same way about everything.
We know this is not true. We’ve learned through thousands of years of human behavior that we all grieve differently. We understand this, we respect it, and we give each other support the way they want to receive it. Even when our dearest friends are grieving, we might not know what to do, so we offer the support and love that we can while trying not to overstep or dictate how they should be feeling.
Why don’t we treat harassment the same way? People are different. We process comments and conduct differently. What could make one person uncomfortable might be what another person revels in. Here’s the example I use:
The company hires Ranya, a Palestinian who wears a hijab. Steve, a former Political Science student, has been fascinated by the Middle East conflict for years. Curious, Steve asks Ranya all sorts of questions about her life in the West Bank & why she wears her hijab. Ranya comes to you as her co-worker & tells you that she is uncomfortable around Steve.
This example illustrates potential harassment on the basis of national origin and religion even if Steve does not intend it to be that way. (Remember, harassment can occur if I have the purpose to harass or if my conduct results in harassment regardless of my intent.) If you asked me what it was like to live in East Jerusalem, I could chat your ear off for days. I’d be totally comfortable and excited that someone wants to know more. But to Ranya, she is uncomfortable. So, do we have to do something about this? You betcha.
Under most harassment laws, whether conduct or comments is actionable harassment will come down to how a reasonable person would feel, meaning it is unlikely that Ranya could recover if she decided to sue the company. That said, Ranya’s uncomfortableness could lead her to look for a different job or steer other Palestinians and Muslims away from working with the company – two things the company really wants to avoid under its diversity and inclusion initiatives. Regardless of the law here, the company needs to have a chat with Steve and work to make Ranya more comfortable.
When I get the comment that we should all learn to be adults, I typically respond with “You know all people are different, right? That we all process information differently?” They say, “I know that.” Then, I point out that they are trying to get everyone to feel the same way. “Yes, we should have the grace to forgive when people make mistakes, but that does not mean that we should all just ignore what other people might find demeaning or demoralizing.”
Respecting that we are all different is the key to having an effective work environment free of harassment. Seeking to understand and let people be themselves is part of this. Just like we let our friends grieve however they want.