It won't have escaped people's attention that I am a queer, foreign woman. It sort of goes with the territory that occasionally, I will be exposed to microaggressions, or outright instances of harassment - on the street, in media, from friends and acquaintances, and sometimes in the workplace. Frankly, I am mouthy enough that most people who know me know to behave around me and when they slip up it's genuinely that - an honest mistake - and not intentional harassment. But over the years, with various employers, I have accumulated my fair share of "colourful workplace experiences" - from my boss making blow job jokes, to strategy deployment videos containing jokes about violence against women, to people casually informing me that something is "so gay" (and no, the fact that they rephrased it to "camp" and then "awful" did not help their case).
I want to give you an insight into what goes on in my head when I'm cheerfully going about my business and I'm suddenly blindsided by one of these things. Perhaps because in most workplaces I've worked at these instances have been mercifully few and far between, my first reaction is always one of disbelief and surprise. The workplace culture is such that it is clear these things are unacceptable, and so when someone does slip up, I tend to do a double-take and think, "Did they really just say that?" At which point my brain enters "fight or flight" mode.
That may sound slightly dramatic, but I literally have two choices here. I can say nothing and live with the knowledge that I to an extent sanctioned and enabled the behaviour in question. More likely than not, the person doesn't even realise what they said or did and that it was wrong; or if they do, they think they got away with it. Either way, they are likely to do it again - to me or to other people. Again, I am mouthy, I've been in workplaces for 15 years, I have some experience with these things and broadly speaking can look after myself. But there are people around me who either witnessed the incident or who may be exposed to similar future incidents who aren't as mouthy, haven't been around as long, or who for other reasons are more vulnerable than me. In many cases, I simply cannot let it go because I have an obligation to other people. By not challenging the bahaviour I am setting a tone where it becomes acceptable, and that's not a culture I want others to work in. Over the years, I have let a few things go - and I still remember, and regret, every single one of them.
My second choice therefore is to call out the behaviour. There are different ways to do this, and depending on the situation one may be more appropriate than another. Over the years, I have done everything from casually asking people to rephrase their comment to taking formal complaints to HR, and all of these have generally yielded good results for their respective situations. I have got company policies and promotional materials changed, I've got people to change their language and understand why something they said was inappropriate. Whatever I do though, chances are it will leave me a bit shaken (and often physically shaking), emotionally drained, and unable to focus on my work for at least a couple of hours as my brain processes the conflict.
I want to make it clear that this is what goes on in my head. But one thing I can guarantee you: that fight or flight choice is something everyone who experiences or witnesses workplace microaggressions or harassment is faced with. And there isn't a right or wrong choice here. All sorts of factors play a role in whether we choose to challenge the behaviour or not: concerns for our safety, how much the issue in question affects us personally, whether we feel the structures around us are such that our action would lead to genuine change. Neither choice is wrong. You are not wrong for "making a fuss", and neither are you wrong for "standing by". What is wrong is that we are having to make the choice in the first place - that we've been put in a situation by someone else where we are forced to pick the lesser evil out of two pretty horrible options.
Here are a few things that employers can learn from this. Firstly, if your workplace is an environment where microaggressions and harassment - on whatever grounds - thrive, your company is losing out because a significant proportion of your employees is spending time and energy either being upset by the harassment and trying to dodge it, or trying to call it our and change things. All the time and energy spent on dealing with harassment is time and energy not spent being productive. This is a lose-lose scenario - don't let it happen.
The way not to let this happen is to create a workplace culture in which harassment and microaggressions are clearly unacceptable. It's not enough to just have an HR policy gathering dust in a filing cabinet that says "Don't harass people." Start with the identity of your organisation - think about what it is that you want to stand for, and how that relates to the experiences of your employees, customers and other stakeholders. Make sure everyone knows this. Then move on to policy. Make it clear in your policies what harassment looks like - be specific, give as many different examples as you can think of, but also keep it open so people can relate their own lived experience to your policy. A clear statement in a policy that the situation I am experiencing definitely counts as harassment will give me confidence to report it. A clear statement that this is not an exhaustive list will also give me confidence to report things that fall outside it. Use your people: make sure that senior leaders are role models and set the right tone; enable people managers to set that tone in their own teams and to challenge inappropriate behaviour when they see it; train everyone on diversity and inclusion - and not just on the "legal" bits but also on the awesome bits, on why having a diverse organisation is valuable and exciting. Ensure that your values and your policies permeate every level of the organisation.
Finally, recognise that people will occasionally get things wrong - and have strong processes in place for dealing with it. The one thing that has consistently enabled me to call out inappropriate behaviour has been the certainty that it will be addressed appropriately by management and HR. The first time, that confidence comes from the company values, and policies, and training - and that's great. However if someone is encouraged by all of these to make a report, and it gets mishandled, all that credibility and confidence you'd built up vanishes in an instant. So make sure that managers and HR know how to handle issues, that they do so quickly, effectively and sensitively, and that feedback about the outcome is always given to the individual. This way, you enable everyone in your organisation to create a harassment-free workplace, and you end up with people who are motivated and focused on their work rather than on distractions.