Note to readers: For the last decade I have been writing FlexBulletin essays on the transformation of the industrial-style workplace into an environment better suited to the 21st century. Flexible work has been my “expertise” and the window through which I have shed light on the tsunami of change that engulfs us. As the forces of social and workplace turbulence have gained strength, especially in the past year, our consulting and advocacy work has broadened and deepened. Join us as our thinking expands and our blogs become more frequent and shorter to address the most pressing challenges of the new normal.
The “good thing” about life-threatening epidemics is they trigger public health campaigns
Here we go again. Putting a face to the enduring cliché of the Hollywood casting couch, along came legendary producer Harvey Weinstein. His ubiquitous, oddly shaven visage adorned the opening floodgates and a wave of Hollywood victims of sexual harassment poured out. Soon accusations were engulfing celebrities, congress, colleges, commentators – and yes, corporations.
Even as the events, accusations and judgments began forming, as the symptoms of a pervasive and crippling illness began to unfold, the rush to “treatment” began. Just as the post-Charlottesville nostrum of “unconscious bias” training swept companies, police departments, universities and more, the call for “mandatory anti-sexual harassment training” rang out almost immediately from the halls of Congress and beyond. Some encouraged a supplemental course of “bystander training” – the application of “if you see something, say something” campaigns to instances of predatory behavior.
Leave aside the limited studies that suggest such training has not been proven effective – and probably does more to limit employer liability than protect potential victims. Common sense suggests that a second opinion on diagnosis and treatment is called for. Might it not be the case that these current symptoms of widespread disrespect and predation are indicators of a deeper and more severe plague, resembling Ebola rather than a flu outbreak. Could it be this moment demands an urgent public health campaign, rather than box cars of band-aids?
If sexual harassment is about power, not sex, then abuse of power fuels the epidemic
The good and bad news about viral plagues is that their deadliness demands our immediate attention and decisive action. Not so with social epidemics. The latter’s incubation periods are measured in years or decades, not weeks or months. In the case of sexual harassment, bullying and severe race and age discrimination, lives and careers can be seriously and permanently damaged. For unknown legions of young aspirants to Hollywood and other desirable destinations, countless career deaths go unnoticed. Crippling events are not visible, and sudden or chronic abuse rarely takes one to the emergency room.
One result: we are slow to recognize this plague, and even slower to mount decisive campaigns to address it. Without obsessing on the analogy, there are lessons to be learned from the Ebola outbreak. A virus with a long incubation period suddenly burst upon an unsuspecting population with lethal fury. Initial, common symptoms of fever, nausea and dehydration defied palliative treatment and the mysterious disease proved terribly contagious. Treatment centers were overwhelmed as health professionals quickly discovered that the virus was spread by casual bodily contact as well as the exchange of fluids. Individual and small scale treatment could not suffice. The only viable model for rapid and effective treatment was a vigorous, culturally aggressive public health campaign including intensive care.
The ultimate, and clearly successful campaign was multi-faceted and thorough. National Geographic describes in stunning detail the need for transforming one contributor to the rapid spread of the lethal virus: deeply held traditional burial practices. “Science confronts culture” recounts a profound project to change the ancient practice of handling the body of the deceased. Success lay well beyond conventional medical approaches, involving intense collaboration of public, religious and village leaders. Can we apply the habit and behavior change over band-aids model to the daunting task of transforming our workplaces?
Something like “public health campaigns” may be needed to build respectful workplaces
We are not now facing the horrors of Ebola. Rather we are wrestling with the destructive social and organizational challenges of multiple strains of the abuse of power. Sexual harassment. Pervasive gender, ethnic and age bias. Bathroom battles and bullying. Arbitrary decisions about flexible work, parental leave and premature retirement. All reflect the ability of some to impose their will on others without recourse. Can these practices and their symptoms be changed solely through education and awareness? Can another round, or a boxed set, of mandatory brief or online “training” actually change behavior?
As social fissures develop, and the term “civil war” returns to the lexicon not as history but as lurking prospect, it is time to mount campaigns of deep behavioral change. As readers of our Bulletins know, we have worked with clients for more than a decade on projects whose purpose was building environments of Mutual Respect. Unlike initiatives that focus on general policy and procedure or individual consciousness, these healthy and respectful workplace campaigns aim to establish clear, strong standards for behavior – in essence, toxin-free environments.
They are similar to the great campaigns to eliminate toxic smoke from the workplace. Standards are established and enforced for behavior within the workplace. Supportive in-depth training is aimed at reducing unwanted, habitual behaviors and replacing them with habits that promote mutual respect among leaders and staff and among peers. Anything less will not address our festering and growing challenges. Our approach is one way, but hardly the only way to build respectful workplaces. But the time has come to move beyond symbolic training and finally embrace and initiate deep environmental change. More of the same will only lead to more of the same.
Paul Rupert has been a leading researcher, writer, consultant and advocate on the diverse, inclusive and flexible workplace for three decades. He is President of consultancy Rupert Organizational Design and Executive Director of Respectful Exits, advocates for extended employment and phased retirement for older workers.