“How do I best deal with office banter when it makes me feel uncomfortable?”
This is the question posed by a reader in the ‘work dilemmas’ section of this weekend’s Sunday Times Style magazine.
Journalist Carrie Gracie (who famously resigned as BBC News’ China Editor last year in a row over unequal pay) gives some sage advice in response – but I was particularly struck by one of her comments.
“You can take the issue to a boss – they should have the leadership skills to establish an acceptable culture”.
As many victims of inappropriate behaviour at work will attest, unfortunately, very often managers don’t have those skills – and the organisations they work for are currently tying themselves in knots, trying to deal with the tide of sexual harassment allegations that have swept in on the back of #MeToo.
The problem with what is often dismissed as ‘harmless banter’ is that is isn’t harmless for the person on the receiving end. It’s behaviour that is usually uninvited, irritating and in some cases possibly frightening or threatening.
“Why do people put up with it?” is the question that’s often asked. Surely women are more than capable of delivering a cutting riposte to an out-of-order comment or fending off an unwanted advance?
Why it’s hard to speak up
As TCM points out in its recent white paper, the truth is that if the unacceptable behaviour is coming from someone in a position of power, it can be very difficult to protest. Put yourself in the shoes of a young employee at the beginning of their career and on the receiving end of some unwelcome advances from a senior manager.
They fear that if they speak up, they will be judged, or that others will think they have in some way encouraged the attention. They worry that people will think they are lying or have some kind of malicious intent towards the perpetrator. They are concerned that if they speak out it could be career limiting – or that in the worst case scenario, they could lose their job.
As a by-stander, it’s all too easy to roll your eyes and suggest that someone is making an unnecessary fuss or has lost their sense of humour. It’s equally easy to perhaps feel a bit uncomfortable about the kind of behaviour or comments you are witnessing, but to think it’s all just a bit awkward and not really any of your business, and to walk away.
Inaction – on the part of the organisation or individuals – is however no longer acceptable. We need to move to a new understanding of the way people interact at work – and we need to make radical changes to the way we respond when relationships go awry or behaviour doesn’t come up to scratch.
The first step towards tackling inappropriate behaviour at work is understanding what’s at the root of our current discomfort and lack of confidence around the whole issue.
There are two key issues at play:
We don’t know what unacceptable behaviour looks like
The first is that as a result of the ongoing outrage, people have genuinely become unsure about exactly what acceptable behaviour at work looks like. There are of course some forms of harassment that are clearly unacceptable – but there are also many grey areas.
At what point does the kind of affectionate joking that happens between colleagues turn into innuendo that makes people feel uncomfortable? Is it OK for a man to compliment a female colleague on their dress or a new haircut? If someone is visibly upset, is it only human to respond by putting an arm around their shoulder, or could that be construed as inappropriate?
This uncertainty is having a real impact on the way people interact with each other at work. Atmospheres are becoming tense and constrained. People feel like they are treading on eggshells. No-one knows quite what to do or how to behave any more. Because people don’t know how to react, in many cases they are now over-reacting and adding a layer of awkwardness to everyday interactions between working people.
A dearth of dialogue
This whole issue is compounded by the second issue at play – which is our inability to have open and honest dialogue with each other at work. We seem to have lost the ability to sit down and speak to each other, face-to-face – not just about inappropriate behaviour, but across a whole range of topics where disagreements and conflict might occur. We have become afraid to communicate like adults, acknowledge our differences and engage in the kind of healthy cathartic conversations that will get us back on track.
This isn’t always easy. Most people’s natural inclination is to run away from conflict of any kind – but it is essential if we are to come to a new, shared understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate at work.
Managers need help in understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict, and in encouraging open and honest conversations in their teams. And organisations need to get out of conflict avoidance mode, and start building cultures where people are not afraid to push back and speak out.