Fighting sexual harassment with the power of words

Communicators can play a crucial role in preventing, mitigating and calling out bad behavior–before your business gets burned.

How to stop sexual harassment with the power of words

With more and more stories about sexual harassment making news cycles, it’s important that HR and communication professionals train leaders to develop the necessary skills to address uncomfortable or abusive situations.

Too many leaders haven’t had the benefit of this kind of coaching, and, unfortunately, an untrained response can drastically worsen the situation. The recent Activision Blizzard scandal is a perfect example.

So what should HR and comms pros do when faced with a crisis such as this?

The best approach is to halt harassment before it begins. One way to do this is by equipping employees with variations of their own truth-filled power phrases so they’ll never be caught off guard. Guessing what you should do or say in an awkward situation, or not knowing how to respond when being harassed, can unintentionally make the situation worse.

For example, a lack of response from you after a subordinate makes an inappropriate comment doesn’t make the damage go away. Ignoring this behavior can perpetuate a culture of harassment because silence signals that the behavior is acceptable.

Not only should you address harassment immediately, but your employees should also feel that they have permission to disengage from conversations that make them uncomfortable. And they should also know exactly what to say in these situations.

Power phrases that halt harassment

Inappropriate questions must be addressed immediately with neutralizing yet actionable statements. For example, “Do you like to party?” should be met with, “I haven’t given that much thought. What I have given thought to is tomorrow’s presentation. And I have a couple of questions for you.”

First-time offenders of crass jokes receive a simple statement such as, “Be appropriate.” With repeat offenders, you must be more direct. Such as, “I need you to speak favorably about all genders.”

Suppose someone always refers to women as “Blondie” or “Babe.” The next time it happens, “I’d prefer that you address Melissa by her first name.” If they reply by saying, “Oh gosh, I was just kidding,” hold your ground: “That may be so. My preference is still for you to address her by name.”

Here are some other communication techniques that can help halt harassment before it begins:

  • Stick to business topics. Demonstrate through your demeanor and word choice what is and is not appropriate for conversations. If you catch yourself or someone else straying, correct course with a phrase like, “Let’s get back to the agenda.”
  • Stand your ground. If your assailant persists, ask them to stop. A simple statement such as, “Be appropriate” usually suffices. When in doubt, be more direct and firm.
  • Don’t overreact. Unless you feel threatened, keep your emotions in check. People often test the waters to see how far you’ll let them take a certain topic. Once you establish clear boundaries, they’re likely to adhere to them.
  • Get help when necessary. Document instances of inappropriate behavior, and share that information with an HR representative. However, be careful not to discuss the offending situation with more than one or two confidants. Doing so could lead to your being perceived as just another office gossip.

If you’re unsure how to proceed, seek out external resources for guidance.

Develop a culture that doesn’t tolerate harassment

Of course, words alone are not the silver bullet to the pervasive problem of sexual harassment. Especially when it comes to an aggressive attack. However, developing a culture that doesn’t tolerate harassment will make a positive difference in creating a safer environment for employees. As a communication professional, you are responsible for your organization’s voice. So make intolerance to harassment part of your organization’s guiding principles. This will put everyone on notice that it isn’t acceptable.

Of course, it’s not all on your shoulders. Everyone in an organization has a responsibility to ensure that the work environment is free of unwanted advances, demeaning dialogue and aggression. This is even true regarding customer interactions. But you have a crucial role to play.

For a culture that doesn’t tolerate harassment to grow, there must also be transparency. That’s why leaders should encourage employees to document incidents with precise facts of what occurred, including dates, times and details. These notes should then be provided to managers, who will need to document their assessment and response to the situation. HR should then be provided copies of all correspondence regarding the matter, including issue management plans that have been made.

Emotionally charged words like “assault” should be used if that’s what happened. It’s important for employees to stick to the facts in the documentation.

Stop harassment in its tracks

The key to handling a crisis is dealing with the issue before it balloons into a full-blown scandal. You must listen to employees when things go wrong, and show them you have their back. Be transparent, or they will walk out on you like what happened at Activision Blizzard. In terms of workplace harassment, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of cure.

Melissa DeLay owns the award-winning crisis communications agency TruPerception and  is author of the book “The Truth About Scandal: The Everyday Guide to Navigating Business Crises.” 

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