The myths of harassment prevention: A conversation with Kantola’s CEO, Sarah Rowell
Veronica Bocian: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Kantola Connects podcast. My name is Veronica Bocian and I am a proud content manager here at Kantola. Joining me today is our fearless leader and CEO, the incredible, Sarah Rowell. Hi, Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Sarah Rowell: Hi, Veronica. Thanks for having me.
Veronica Bocian: Okay, so we are here today to talk about the myths behind harassment prevention. Sarah, can you start us off and tell us why you think this is an important topic?
Sarah Rowell: Absolutely, absolutely. So, I think there’s two parts to why this is important. The first part is, why is harassment prevention an important issue? And so, prompted by a lot of things like the Me Too movement and other things, there’s a lot of raised awareness about the damage that harassment can do. And it’s really affecting organizations. So, it’s not just affecting individuals, which it is, there’s a kind of toll on the individual, but it also affects organizations. And so there are various estimates that it costs US businesses about 20 billion dollars a year based on things like lawsuits, loss of productivity, brand damage, employee turnover and like I say, that doesn’t even count the level of distress that it can cause employees.
So, this is a really important topic. And so if you have an important topic, then you have to think about what are some of the kind of main barriers to being able to affect change? And that’s where this idea about the myths comes in, so it’s this second part. And where there are myths, and if they’re not dispelled effectively, you really then can’t provide that solution to positively impact change. And so that’s why I’m passionate about it because there are these hurdles that are not necessarily true, that are not helping us, that we need to overcome to be able to be effective change agents.
Veronica Bocian: That makes so much sense. Can you take us through a few of these myths?
Sarah Rowell: One of the biggest myths that I experience and have experienced and we in Kantola have experienced is a lot of learners say we all know harassment when we see it, it’s just common sense. And on some level that makes sense because you say, yeah, this is just a manifestation of other things that we’ve learned through our years, through our families that it’s not okay. It’s not appropriate to make people feel uncomfortable and you have to apologize and make amends if you do. And so some of these, there’s a certain amount of truth to that, but actually it’s not just common sense. It can be more nuanced, it can be harder to spot, it can be harder to know when you’ve transgressed. So, I think something we can all identify with is, there are certain things that we just find exciting, exotic, and curious, and we want to learn more and that can make other people feel uncomfortable. And if we don’t realize, we think our intention is to be friendly and curious, but another person can feel othered. And that’s an area where common sense doesn’t necessarily get you there.
Another area that’s like this is, it’s difficult sometimes to create connection with people. And so often you go to something that you know, you make a joke or you have a bit of banter with a person and it works really well, it kind of breaks down a barrier. And then naturally as humans, we kind of keep going back to the, well, I guess. And that becomes the standing banter that you go to.
And it might have been okay the first time, but the second or the third or the fourth time or when it’s every week or every day, that person can say, “I’m really sick of being the blank.” And the original experience maybe wasn’t that negative. And the intention isn’t negative and then it’s gone too far. They can’t say, “Hey, when you always talk about…” Let’s just take me as an out, always talk about me being Irish at this point, it’s gone a little bit… I’m a bit tired of it and I’d really like it if we could change the topic. That again, common sense doesn’t always lead us there. And so these are things that we need to examine and highlight and show and think about on a periodic basis just to make sure that we’re not making some of these transgressions that make people feel uncomfortable.
So it kind of brings me to another myth that we see a lot is people say only a very, very small number of people are harassers. And that’s true, especially egregious harassers. But then the next logical statement or what can seem logical is that educating everyone is a waste of time. Right? So if it’s just a few, why don’t you just go and educate them? Go deep with three individuals and leave the rest of us just going about our business because we’re not the problem.
And I think that the real myth behind this is that in order to create a resilient system, everybody needs to have a common sense of language and a common sense of purpose. And so that’s where education comes in. So if everyone understands the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to do and where things might have gone wrong and have tools to help spark conversation. So that could be, for example, I could be a bystander and that’s something for everybody. I could see there’s something that is going wrong in front of me. And if I have tools to help me be a bystander and be an upstanding bystanders as they say, that’s something that’s very, very powerful.
And so there’s a role for everybody. And also there’s a role like we talked about with that myth of it not being common sense where someone can be both the recipient and the originator of behavior that doesn’t make others feel comfortable. So we’ve already dispelled the myth that it’s not just common sense. So there’s this inadvertent bucket. So that’s already telling us that maybe everybody needs some education, but even when we talk about the very egregious forms of harassment that do have the most cost attached to them, there’s something for everybody. And it’s those organizations where people say, that’s not how we do things here. If they have that kind of approach, that’s then kind of creates that sense of shared purpose.
Veronica Bocian: I’m just saying mm-hmm to everything you’re saying because it makes complete sense. And the other component that I’ve heard you talk about before too is that when you have that sense of shared understanding and shared language, it also can help contribute to a better culture overall.
Sarah Rowell: Right. Correct. Exactly. And that’s not just about the absence of harassment or negative behavior, but it’s actually about the presence of inclusive behavior that can really boost productivity of a team because the team has that culture of success that’s going on, that everyone is helping everyone give their best contributions.
So there’s a lot of positive sides to this as well, not just prevention of bad behaviors, but actually encouragement of really positive ones that have both a individual benefit to all the employees who feel valued and seen by their coworkers. And then the organization gets the benefits as well, so…
There’s another myth I’d love to chat about, and that’s about, there’s this concept in harassment prevention because there’s a legal basis for this and it’s about protected characteristics. And protected characteristics are things like your age or your gender or your race or your ethnicity or your religion. All of these are your protected characteristics. And there’s actually quite a lot of them. And there’s, I’ve heard a number, many individuals actually, think that only a minority of individuals in an organization have a protected characteristic and therefore the protection is for just them. Those people who have a protected characteristic. And I think it’s often associated because when we say protected characteristic, it’s often invoked at times when someone is in a minority in an organization.
And so therefore we start to say, well, not everybody has a protected characteristic, which is not true. Everybody has a protected characteristic, at least a couple of them because everybody has a gender, that could be everything from male, female, a non-binary. Everybody has a sexual orientation. Everybody has, they’re parts of an age group and generation and that changes actually over time. Even things like having disabilities can change over time as well.
And so everyone has a collection of protected characteristics and they’re all in place. And a great example just to really think about this is, I think often the cisgender male feels like they don’t have any protections, but actually imagine a world where there’s a profession that is dominated by women and there’s one man in there and they’re being treated differently by the women on the team and they feel like they can’t get their job done. And often is kind of something’s happening that’s in some way discriminatory or they’re feeling othered or they’re feeling harassed.
That person is protected. And so I think it’s really important that we understand this is for everybody. Because when you think about it that way, you start to realize it is for everybody and there are benefits for everybody. Even people who would be from traditionally majority groups still have, there are still many situations where their identity might mean that they feel harassed.
Veronica Bocian: Right. Yes. And I feel like we kind of touched on this earlier, but for people in that same neighborhood who feel as if harassment prevention, education and training are really just for compliance and there are no other benefits, how do you dispel that myth? What do you say to people who view it in that way?
Sarah Rowell: Yeah, no, I mean, compliance is, obviously am very supportive of the idea that training can be required because then it really provides that impetus for organizations to provide that education. And it also means that there’s none of that, oh, well, I might do it, but my competitors wouldn’t, would it make me less competitive? And all these sorts of things. So there’s a lot of reasons why it’s really great to have those mandates.
One of the downsides is it starts to turn into an exercise of I need to meet a mandate, not, I am trying to educate my workforce. And so you know, need to really think about this as an opportunity to say, well, I want to meet the mandate, but what else, while I’m doing that, how can I make that the most valuable opportunity?
And so there’s the first most basic thing, which is if you educate people on behaviors that are unwelcome, you should see less of that unwelcome behavior. So, you have to really think carefully about you’re, what kind of training you’re choosing and how you’re doing it and what the situations and stories and scenarios are such that it will actually raise awareness and then prompt someone to change their behaviors and really make a difference in that way.
But then there’s also risk that goes along with that. So again, reducing those risky behaviors, reducing investigations has a cost attached to it or a benefit of a reduced cost attached. If you can bring those cases down. There’s also, then the more, I guess how do I put it? There’s the whole idea of legal liability. So if you do end up in a situation where you the company are trying to protect yourself against a situation of some kind of issue that happened, when you can show and prove that you’ve done a really good job of educating your workforce, then the liability starts to move to the individual and you, the organization, have less liability because you have made all positive steps that you can to try and create a positive workplace for all your employees.
And then there’s a final one that’s harder to often put a finger on, and that is about attracting and retaining employees. Employees want to work in inclusive places. That’s been proven time and again, and they look for signals that tell them this is an inclusive place. And so having a good education program in place that is designed to create a harassment free workplace and an inclusive workplace. So going further above and beyond gives them a sign and a signal, this is a place that I want to be because I think my welfare in a holistic way is going to be people are taking care of that.
Veronica Bocian: I was just smiling because I was going back in my own memory box of all the times that I myself have looked for those signs and I can remember them so vividly.
So, what do you say to people, and obviously this question comes with a little bit of bias for myself, just knowing how we stand out at Kantola, but what do you say to people who assume that all harassment, prevention, education and trainings are the same?
Sarah Rowell: Well, I think, again, I’m biased. This is where I’ve chosen to pour my professional efforts and so I clearly think it makes a difference how you do it. But yeah, I mean think, let’s start with a concept that’s on the other side of this, which is there’s been a lot of studies that have shown the wrong kind of education can create backlash. And if done in a heavy-handed way, you can find that some groups and organizations can feel like they had the finger pointed at them, so to speak, or in some way are put on the back foot. And so what they tend to do then is kick back against it and often maybe blame groups that are supposed to be protected, but instead they often might level claims of them being oversensitive and things like that. So, it has a negative impact. I think that the very fact that that is shown to be true, that a backlash or a negative impact proves that there is a difference between different ways of doing things.
And there’s that other positive side, which is something that is oriented towards a more nuanced situation, a situation that shows this is not a judgment, this is not a blame game. This is the fact that yes, of course there are people who are egregiously harassing other people, but they’re also some of those inadvertent areas as well.
And I think too, try and push learning down on an employee base without really listening to their valid concerns is something that is never going to have its desired effect. And so you need to make sure you’re listening and you need to make sure that any training that you put in front reflects the fact that this is complex and it is not straightforward and it is not black and white. And there’s a lot of other things that go into that. And then I think people will approach it with less skepticism and more openness to what you’re trying to do.
So, I don’t know if that answers that one?
Veronica Bocian: It absolutely does. And I’m always just so in awe of your knowledge and how you explain things to… I mean, it seems so simple and yet so complicated at the same time. And I always thank you for sharing your knowledge in the way that you see things because it’s so helpful.
So final thoughts, I mean, what do you say to someone listening who’s working towards dispelling these myths among their own employees or facing any type of resistance when it comes to these types of educations and trainings?
Sarah Rowell: Yeah, well, I think just tagging into something you just said there about, in some ways it seems so simple, but it’s not. And I think that’s because we’re talking about humans. Humans, we’re messy. Right? Just, that’s who we are. And we come at everything with our own perspectives on things, years and years of layered experiences and therefore sensitivities to certain things, different ways of looking at things.
So really, I think the most important factor to get your education program to really land is to make sure that you’re actually listening to your employees and that you’re not dismissing concerns that they have. So I think that’s all people really want is to be listened to, for somebody to not dismiss their concerns and to say, if that’s the way you feel, that’s your truth. Now let’s talk about how others feel. Let’s talk about how we can bring all this together. And if we can all agree that the goal is to create a workplace where everyone feels comfortable and happy and safe, the routes to get there may be different. And we have to listen and think about that and be thoughtful to that. That’s the only way to break down the barriers. Nobody’s going to start listening to you just by raising your voice more loudly and making the same point repeatedly.
Veronica Bocian: Sarah, thank you so much. You are honestly just a bottomless well of knowledge.
Sarah Rowell: You’re very kind.
Veronica Bocian: Thank you for sharing with us today. And thank you to everyone who is listening in. And for more information on harassment prevention training programs, you can head to kantola.com.