I’m often amused at people who talk about how we are now past problems that have plagued humanity for centuries. Now that we’re well into the 21st Century, they predict we can stop focusing so much on things like racism and sexual harassment.
Certainly, some things are better today. As a group, we no longer accept certain behaviors, at least most of the time. It’s been a while, for instance, since a leader piled the skulls of his enemies into a large pyramid and got points for it. That’s a good thing.
But in many important ways people really are still people and they often stumble over the same pitfalls as did our ancestors. Details may change, but the basics remain pretty constant.
This is why I suggest managers stay grounded when someone talks about a post-discrimination, post-racial or post-anything era. Whether it’s race, gender or something like bow ties, some people will have problems with it in their work environment.
I thought of this recently when I read about a Utah community that settled with three female police officers in a sexual harassment suit. All three alleged they were sexually harassed by a superior officer while the city and former chief of police failed to take appropriate action. An internal affairs investigation apparently confirmed their allegations but action was slow, possibly because of ties among upper management.
The organization may have stumbled over the kind of top-level network issue that is hard to avoid. In everything from churches to public schools and private businesses, top staff members must rely on bonds of trust that can make it hard to separate performance and character, for instance. I call it the “Bob wouldn’t do that” syndrome.
It works like this: Bob (or Barb) is a staffer, maybe a critical component of the organization. He or she is mostly a good person around the workplace and, while he or she is a little eccentric (we all are, right?), their behavior doesn’t get in the way of work, right?
This is especially tough to address if you tend to agree with Bob or Barb’s perspective, even a little. Part of the “Bob syndrome” is that top ranking staff members tend to share many perspectives. You might not accept sexual harassment or another obvious problem, but you may view as acceptable other behaviors that don’t seem relevant at work. You’ll often hear comments like, “they should just get over it” or “how bad can it be?”
That’s where a real, “21st Century” perspective is needed. As the three female officers argued in Utah, the behavior did get in the way of work. Thy felt harassed to the point that they had to resort to action that no doubt made things uncomfortable for everyone on the job, including them. I suspect they were also motivated because, after they complained to other superiors, nothing was done. They and their concerns were dismissed. That’s rarely a good management plan, no matter what the compliant or identify of the person filing the complaint.
I don’t have any quick solutions, but I would remind that in one sense it’s an issue of weighing costs. Getting rid of a high-placed team member with a workplace problem definitely has a cost. But keeping him or her does, too. While three women filed this suit, it’s possible others were troubled as well. It’s probable that in some ways public service was reduced. Years of this definitely has a cost.
The three Utah women each received $85,000 as part of the settlement. No mention was made of additional fines and the other court requirements. The city must institute policies and training that today seem common sense. In our current regulatory environment, I would consider that the city got off fairly easily. Workplace violations can bring massive financial cost as well as morale and performance issues. In the long run, it’s usually easier for everyone to address these complaints early.