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

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

What Do We Owe Each Other?

While I have been safely ensconced in #SHRM18, I haven’t been able to read the news as much as I’d like.  When I finally looked at my twitter feed devoted to news, I became angry, sad, frustrated, and a whole other host of emotions.  So as midnight approaches, here are some things I hope all of my HR friends take from this fantabulous conference to put into their worlds:

Compassion.  Oscar Munoz explained why caring comes immediately after safety at United.  Caring means holding a door open for a family who just landed a half a terminal away and who are running to catch the plane to see a sick grandma.  While a policy may say one thing, caring about the people we serve (and for those of us in HR, that includes our employees and candidates) sometimes says something different.  If our employees are empowered with compassion, they will do the right thing for our customers, clients, and the greater world.

Compassion.  While he may not have said it in quite this way, Tim Sackett talked about how CEOs want to be able to personalize our HR plans because our people are individuals who want personalization.  Personalization means we have to know, acknowledge, and understand the needs of candidates and employees.  We can’t personalize unless we are compassionate with the people we help every day.

Compassion.  In discussing inclusion, Joe Gerstandt asked us to imagine a world where employees have space to be themselves, we ask and they speak about the personal parts of their life so they don’t feel they have to hide parts of themselves.  “How are you really?”  “How is your mom?  Is she feeling better?”  Adding circle tables to a break room so people can interact.  Integrating our values into conversations about our objectives, especially when we are struggling with an issue.  We want our employees to be innovative problem-solvers, and we can do that by being compassionate with them.

Compassion.  I was unable to attend Adam Grant’s presentation.  But from what I saw on the twitters, it was amazing.  One thing he challenged me on is ending exit interviews.  The argument (via him and some super HR pros) is that we should have known about the problems before the employee leaves.  This is absolutely true.  We should have known.  When an employee is so afraid to talk to us while still working for us, we have lost.  Lost big time.  We need employees to want to talk with us, to want to share the good stuff and the bad stuff.  This takes trust.  We can foster trust by being compassionate with our folks.  Knowing their names, their struggles, their successes.  When they see that we are interested and invested in their well-being, they will come to us with their concerns.

So, what do we owe each other?  Do we owe each person around us respect?  Hells to the yeah.  Do we owe each other attention when a problem crops up or a success is achieved?  Yes.  Do we owe someone time when he is asking for help in dealing with FMLA paperwork because his wife is ill?  Yes.  All of this takes compassion.  When we see people suffering, do we owe them help?  Yes.  It breaks my heart to see people suffering.  I hope that is true for everyone in HR.  We owe ourselves, our employees, and the people around us compassion.

I’m going to try to remain hopeful and do better myself.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Man-Bashing Training

Question:  Do we vilify men in harassment training?   

Think about that for a moment.  Do we use more man-on-woman examples?  (Probably.)  Do we need to change this?  Yes.  Harassment training is for everybody because everybody could harass.  According to a recent poll, one in seven men has experienced harassment at work. So, we can’t ignore men and their experiences just because so many women have similar experiences.

It is possible (and maybe even likely) that we’ve created an environment surrounding harassment training that we’ve alienated men or have come across as attacking them.  If this is the case, we should be criticized.  And, we should do better.  Here’s how I think we can do this:

Know our audience.  Every training should be customized to the workplace.  If the scenarios don’t feel real, the training won’t have an impact.  Because we have men in our workplaces, we can’t exclude their experience (and fear) from our training.  We should address it, and give a workable framework on what we expect from them.

Start with respect.  Often in trainings, I hear the statement, “I can’t even compliment a woman anymore.”  This comment comes from a man, usually over 40, who is sitting with his arms crossed, angry that he even needs to be in the room.  I turn to him and say, “There’s a difference between ‘That dress is very nice on you’ and ‘That dress hugs you in all the right ways.’”  He nods, and if I’m lucky, he chuckles a bit.  I then say, “We’re here to talk about that difference.”  That difference is respect.

For all of you labor lawyers cringing at this, listen up!  We live in a society where respect is under a near constant barrage.  We can’t operate in workplaces where respect and integrity aren’t at the core of what we are.  Without respect, we don’t get innovation.  So, we should make respect the cornerstone of our training. Our employees want respect.  They expect and deserve respect.  Starting our training talking about respect is what we must do.  If every conversation was respectful, we wouldn’t have harassment.

Have diverse examples.  Women-on-women harassment happens.  Men-on-men harassment happens.  So, we should have diverse examples.  Some of my best examples – examples that result in the most discussion – are man-on-man and woman-on-man.  We want to have a discussion and a bit of uncomfortableness.  Because we learn when we experience and are at least a bit uncomfortable, the discussion has any chance to really make a difference.

Use the whole scale of harassment.  Include examples of calling someone “sweetheart” or “man candy.”  Talk about staring, dirty jokes, and racial epithets.  You can talk about kissing, hugging, and even assault too, but ignoring the subtle stuff ignores where most harassment starts.  We don’t want this.

Ask, “what would you do?”  We should put our employees in the uncomfortable position of asking them what they would do.  You may be surprised by the responses.  Then, we should explain what we want them to do.  We don’t have to change their personalities to get between a harasser and his/her victim, but we should at least explain who we want them to tell.

Harassment training should mirror the tone of our workplaces.  It should set expectations and be meaningful for employees and managers.  It should make our employees contemplate their conduct without making them feel bad.

One more point:  Ladies, we don’t get to objectify men at work.  I’ve heard the argument that men have objectified women for a long time, so women should get to objectify men as a matter of fairness or even that they like it (uff da).  But like India has to grow green while we polluted for decades, we have to do the right thing.  We can’t objectify them either.  Enjoy a Magic Mike movie, but you can’t bring the poster into the office.  Ok?

This evening, I get to talk about trends in harassment training.  I’ve very excited (and a more than a bit nervous) about this.  Eliminating man-bashing will be one of the trends along with bystander and civility components, manager focus, and welcomeness elimination.  Any others you think I should talk about?

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

#UltiConnect!

This week, I was honored to be included in a loveable group of yahoos – I mean, influencers – at Ultimate Software’s Connections Conference in Las Vegas.  These people are leading the way in human resources and technology, and I’m lucky to call them friends.

The conference itself was really something.  While Robin Roberts and John O’Leary’s keynotes were fantastic, it was Ultimate Chief Executive Officer Scott Scherr who left the biggest impact on me.  Mr. Scherr’s general session did not focus on what was new or why his leadership has brought success to the company like how many other CEOs may have spent their time.  Instead, he focused on his people.  He went through a list of Ultipeeps who have made a difference.  This list was impressive, even if he was slightly embarrassing a few of them.

But what really got me was how Mr. Scherr focused on their “People First” mantra as not just a mantra but a lifestyle.  In a presentation to SHRM in 2009, Mr. Scherr said the following, “The measure of a company is how they treat their lowest paid employee.”  In this year’s session, Mr. Scherr talked about how the character of the company relies on the character of its people.  When you hire good people, you treat them well, they will take care of the 3,700 customers there at the conference and all those who were unable to attend.  This is so true.  Another (more lawyerly) way to look at this is when people are treated well, the compliance risks are significantly lower for an organization.

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If you’d like to see the sessions where I presented, please see the links for employee communication (I start at 17:25) and women in leadership.  The women in leadership session was made up of some fantastic women!  I highly recommend spending some time to learn from them.