Hot off the press just this month:

  1. Twice as many male managers now feel uncomfortable working alone with women than before #MeToo. Lean-in survey Jan 2018.
  2. The #1 workplace charge filed in the USA in 2017 was Retaliation (48.8% of charges), reports the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. link.

With both sexual harassment reporting and retaliation at such a high, could our companies, be punishing women somehow, for speaking out against workplace harassment, without even realizing it?

In our workplaces we have seen doing the right thing or speaking up against wrong-doing doesn’t always end well.

Let me tell you about a 110-person media company we conducted an HR Director search for, in LA. Getting to know them, we learned that when the marketing coordinator, Stephanie, had asked HR why she and her team-mate, Hector, both as equally talented as their colleague, Dave, were paid 20% less than him, she was soon fired from the company. To say the least, this was troubling.

Yet, it’s not all that surprising if we look at the most recent report from our nation’s watch dog of workplace discrimination claims. The EEOC summed-up the rap-sheet for 2017, finding claims of retaliation were filed more than race, gender, disability and even sex discrimination.

What’s retaliation in this context and how do these two connect? Retaliation means punishing an employee for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination including harassment.

The broader workplace impact of the sexual harassment revolution

Pros-: On the one hand, the outrage at the sexual harassment outpouring is bringing workplace justice. There are consequences for those accused and we see a lot of discussion and people taking this very seriously.  We also see victims feeling heard.

Cons-: On the other hand, we also see a lot of fear and what is being called a backlash on women at work, in reaction to the outpouring of workplace sexual harassment claims. This backlash one might think, would be directed at those companies themselves, allowing situations to be “hushed-up”, waivers signed, claimants fired, and condoning aggressors remaining in charge. Instead what we see, is women employees suffering unintended consequences in their everyday work-lives, which impact their careers for the negative.

The unintended consequences harming our workplaces

Feeling overwhelmed. The grapevine’s interest in the “drama” is waning in some circles. Some of the chatter at the water-cooler is showing that people are struggling to process the extent of all the “dirty laundry” being aired all at one time. All this sexual harassment is depressing and intense and although many people feel comfort in the truth emerging, as HR observers we sense people are wishing they could block their ears.  People are struggling at work with making sense of it all and knowing how to behave in the workplace post #Metoo.

Victim blaming. This shows up in various forms, when we hear things like “Why did they take so long to report this?” “They didn’t seem to mind until now;” “It was a different time then;” “Can’t they let sleeping dogs lie?”

Balancing being un-offensive and human at work. People want to be able to feel relaxed around their fellow workers, while also respecting people’s diversity and sensitivities. Yet, sometimes it’s not that easy. We might not always know when we have crossed a line for someone or used a term that is perceived differently by some groups than others.  A client told me recently how as a business owner in their baby product company near San Diego, they are truly like family at work. He explained that they laugh, enjoy working together and it’s not unusual for people to hug each other hello in the mornings.  Unfortunately, when a new staff member joined, she didn’t appreciate the familiarity of the environment and until the owner realized it, she had reported that she did not feel comfortable around him and wanted to either work from home or no longer receive hugs at work. Indeed, sometimes our changing workplaces can feel as if they are strewn with landmines around which one needs to navigate.

Have we equipped our teams with the tools and understanding to handle sometimes treacherous workplace situations and sensitivities?

Men withdrawing. We are finding good, fair men sensing the need to isolate themselves from women out of fear that any misspoken word, glance or joke they make could lead to their own demise.

In the advertising industry, to which we consult as HR search leaders, a new Instagram phenomenon called Diet Madison Avenue, with a following of over 16,000 is urging people to send direct messages about abuses they’ve suffered, or know of, and subsequently recirculating those accusations through Instagram stories.  Diet Madison Avenue‘s account is run anonymously, allegedly by a coalition of 17 men and women who all work in advertising.

With a climate like this, it’s no wonder that this month’s research shows that almost half of male managers feel uncomfortable participating in common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone or socializing together Lean In Survey.

This begs the question, as leaders, how do we ensure our workplaces remain “human” in spite of the risks we need to keep in mind.

Icing out women. The Lean-in Survey found that: Senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate to have a work dinner with a junior-level woman than with a junior-level man – and 5 times more likely to hesitate to travel for work with a junior-level woman.

More women are being excluded from meetings, projects, business trips, after-hour meetings or are secretly being avoided due to fear or concern that they may become accusatory. The underlying assumption being that any senior man is now fair game for having accusations levelled against him.

Equality, inclusion and diversity approaches to organizational success include for example employing and advancing more women into senior roles, mentoring women, paying people equally for the same performance in the same jobs. These actions build innovation, profitability and better places to work. This is already proven.

By reacting negatively to harassment claims, by cutting women out, are we not bullying the brave into silence, rather than building each other up?   Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a Facebook post: “The last thing women need right now is even more isolation. Men vastly outnumber women as managers and senior leaders, so when they avoid, ice out, or exclude women, we pay the price.” see link here.

What we can do to build each other up and grow resilient organizations.

  • Women must role model the behaviors needed in more junior women, for them to ascend and succeed.


  • We must each begin to better understand our own unconscious biases driving all our behaviors, to be better equipped in choosing the right responses to situations.


  • Our aspiring women leaders have a responsibility to take the initiative to seek out strong leaders as mentors. By so doing, they gain access to a level of the organization that has influence over advancement. (At the same time, leadership gains insight into more junior levels of talent that they might not have otherwise had access to).


  • We must all stretch ourselves to braving those, sometimes, tough conversations with people who’re displaying behaviors that are not culture affirming nor bring out the best in each other.


As a human being, I completely understand the male concern of now being wary of displaying one’s natural warmth and human-ness. This is a real concern! At my company, we’ve developed a sexual harassment culture program, demystifying our understandings of our own unconscious biases, the players and the unwritten rules that might be emboldening sexual harassment in our workplaces, and most importantly providing effective skills to equip all genders with a toolkit to confront natural organizational dynamics and reshape our cultures.

If we can be intentional in our inclusion while also building out people’s skills in communication, understanding our unconscious biases and how they play out in workplace behavior and decisions making, then we are strengthening the organization’s resilience. Add to this the development of core organizational values to live and breathe by and to hold each other accountable for. This is how we increase shareholder value – it’s really that simple.


#retaliation #LeanIn #SexualHarassment #MentorHer @dietmadisonave #TimesUp

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