Like Grief

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.

 

Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

What Are You Going to Do?

If you walked past a fight on the street, what would you do?  Call the police?  Try to break it up?  Walk away?  Watch?   Not many people would do something if they inadvertently stumbled across a fight.  Would they intervene if something happened in the workplace?  Would you?

We live and work in a fascinating time.  We’re being forced (some are being dragged kicking and screaming) to look at our workplaces, see the inequities, evaluate the poor management, and do better.  This is hard.  Like really, really hard.  Citigroup recently published its finding that on the aggregate, it pays women nearly a third less than men.  When the numbers were adjusted to reflect pay at comparable positions, the difference was significantly less, placing the organization in a defensible position.  Yet, the aggregate numbers are a wake-up call.  Citigroup vowed to change, adding more women in high level positions across the globe, and I applaud both their transparency and their efforts to improve.

What Citigroup did was look and do something.  While Citigroup was pushed to look by a new UK law and an activist shareholder, the looking was an important step.  Because once we look, we can’t simply walk away.

In the past two years, we’ve been forced to look at harassment.  #MeToo has riveted our world. The headlines have opened our eyes to what has been happening in plain sight for decades.  We’ve found that it is the rare occurrence of harassment that no one in the company knows about.  Someone overheard a conversation, witnessed an odd touch, or saw an inappropriate text message.  Yet, we have looked away, justified our willful ignorance as “it’s 20XX, that can’t possibly be happening now.”  It’s this shrugging of our shoulders that has allowed harassment continue and worsen.

The same is true for other forms of harassment and discrimination.  Racial and religious epithets and symbols, putting the only black sales executive in a closet, offensive costumes that have a direct impact on students are all news items from the past eight weeks.  In the last eight weeks!  We see so much more now with more and more avenues for targets of discrimination and harassment to share their stories.  It is as if we are walking past this fight and are being asked “what would you do?”

For me, staying silent is not an option.  I avoid conflict as much as the next Midwesterner, yet, we are at a time – just like so many other times in our history – where staying silent makes the situation worse.  Today, we stop and think about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”  Elie Wiesel once said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  Looking at what’s happening in our workplaces and work, these two leaders ask us, what are you going to do?

I encourage you to look.  You can start by following #BlackBlogsMatter.  This group of amazing individuals have put together a movement designed to raise their voice, speak their truth, and teach us all how we can be better allies and simply do better.

 

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

Getting Harassment Training Right

Over the last year, I’ve done hundreds of respectful workplace (a/k/a harassment) trainings.  I love this training.  It is my favorite.  This is training is so vital to every organization that I will move vacations to do it.  Seriously.

I speak publicly on harassment training.  Just this year, I’ve done a DisruptHR talk, the North Dakota’s Workforce Development Conference, Minnesota SHRM, and soon the Minnesota Association of Legal Administrators conference on this topic.

I’ve even written a lot on harassment training.  (See here and here for training specifically, and here and here for more general training references.)  The writing has helped me focus my own trainings, making them better for my clients.

After this year (and the years before that), I’ve come up with my own philosophy on harassment training – what makes it good, what can we do better, what should employers consider, etc.  Ultimate Software has been kind enough to include my diatribe on the subject in their collection of white papers.  You can find it here.   Please, if you’re considering putting harassment training on your list of to-dos for 2019, read it.

Vote! Vote! Vote!

We’re one week away from the midterm elections.  All of the 435 House of Representatives members are on the ballot.  Thirty-six governorships are on the ballot.  Thirty-five Senate races are on the ballot.  A seemingly countless number of other statewide and local elections are on the ballot.  With this election, a lot is on the ballot.

Here are just a few of the issues on our ballots:

These issues affect our people.  Even if these issues don’t seem to directly affect Jimmy in Accounting or Juan in Shipping, our people are affected by them.  As HR people, we should encourage our people to vote.   We should expect that they might need time off to vote and that our state law may require it.  This year, a record 44% of employers will give paid time off to vote.  Isn’t that cool?

You also need to vote.  You may be able to vote early this week in your state.  Or take the time to vote next week.  Just vote, please.  Pretty please?  (Not that the appearance of the please should make any difference, but if it gets you to vote…)

 

 

Image by me just after early voting.

If Amazon’s Tool Could Discriminate, Could Yours?

Yesterday, Reuters reported that Amazon created a recruiting engine using artificial intelligence.  This isn’t news.  Amazon is a leader in automation, so it makes sense that the retail giant would try automation in their own recruiting processes to try to quickly find the “best” candidates.  Yet, Amazon’s tool had a big problem – it didn’t like women.

As the article describes, “Everyone wanted this holy grail,” one of the people said. “They literally wanted it to be an engine where I’m going to give you 100 resumes, it will spit out the top five, and we’ll hire those.”  Who doesn’t want this?  To make hiring faster and easier?  Currently, there are hundreds of AI tools available to human resources – many of them in the recruiting space – that promise to do these things for you.  But if Amazon found problems, what about those tools?

Amazon’s tool used a 10-year look back of existing employees (largely male-dominated).  The tool then could rank applicants based on what it learned makes a good Amazonian.  Based on its own analysis, the tool learned that male candidates were preferred over female candidates in a mixture of words that appear on applications, like “women’s,” experience, job requirements, and potentially proxies for gender.  While Amazon tried to solve for this problem – making “women’s” a neutral word so the tool did not reduce the applicant’s rank – the results of the tool still had a negative impact on women.  So, in 2015, Amazon abandoned the tool.  Good for Amazon.  This is the right thing to do.  But again, there are hundreds of other AI tools out there.

At this year’s HR Tech Conference in Las Vegas, my friend Heather Bussing and I presented on this very topic.  We spoke about how AI can both amplify and reduce bias. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • We know that AI is biased because people are biased.
  • We know the sources of the bias include the data we use to teach the AI, the programming itself, the design of the tool, and people who create the tool.
  • Employers have to be vigilant with their tools.  We have to test for bias and retest and retest (and retest) for bias in our tools.
  • Employers – not the AI – are ultimately responsible for the results of the tool, because even if we follow the output of the tool, the employer is making the ultimate employment decision.

It is very possible, even probable, that the tools out there on the market have bias in them.  Employers can’t simply rely on a vendor’s salesperson’s enthusiastic declarations that the tool eliminates bias.  Instead, employers should assume bias plays a factor and look at their tool with a critical eye and try to solve for the problem ourselves.

I applaud Amazon for doing the right thing here, including testing its tool, reviewing the results, and abandoning the tool when it became clear that its bias played a part the results.  This isn’t easy for every employer.  And, not every employer is going to have the resources to do this.  This is why employers have to be vigilant and hold their vendors accountable for helping us make sure bias isn’t affecting our decisions even when using an AI tool.  Because ultimately, the employer could be liable for the discrimination that the tools aid.

 

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Two Questions

There are two questions that can change how well our people perform, how we work as a team, how we manage, and how we keep compliant.  Here they are:

  1. How are things going?
  2. What can I do to help you?

Definitely not rocket science, but think about these.  If you manager came to you, and genuinely asked, “how are things going?” how would you respond?  Would you respond with some of your concerns or roadblocks, would you say “my mom has been really sick” or “I’m having a hard time getting through to my Assistant,” or would you say “I completed this project!” More likely than not, if you believed your manager really wanted to know, you’d share information about your or your team’s work performance.  You might also share information that affects that work performance.

If your manager asked what she could do to help you, would you give an honest response?  “Janelle in Accounting is holding this up, could you please chat with the CFO?”  “I would like to go to this conference so I can learn more about XYZ.”  “I might need your help filling in for me while I get my mom to the doctor.”  Or, “James has been saying weird things to me, could you help me figure out how to handle the situation?” If you know your manager is willing to help, would you ask for it?  Wouldn’t this help you?

The Harvard Business Review published an important article about questions and how they build emotional intelligence and most importantly, trust.  If all the research is correct that when employees trust their manager, their performance and engagement increase, why wouldn’t we ask managers to ask questions to build trust?  These questions are business related by identifying successes and concerns while offering to help.

So, how does this tie to compliance?  Well, that’s an easy connection – when would people trust us, they tell us when something isn’t going quite right.  They tell us when someone said something he shouldn’t have, when they need a reasonable accommodation, or when they fear a co-worker might be breaking the law. If we want to foster communication from employees on these issues, we need them to trust us.  So, let’s ask them the two questions more often.

One other thing – it’s easy to train managers to lead with these questions.  The hard part is getting those managers to live these questions, to turn them into real information-seeking questions.  Look for those managers who do it well, keep them, train them, promote them.

 

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash