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Why Targets of Harassment Keep Quiet, and What You Can Do to Avoid a Matt Lauer Situation

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In the last few months, a long list of perpetrators of harassment have emerged from politics, Hollywood, and television. Most recently, it was Matt Lauer, a familiar face that has graced the television screen of nearly every home in America. What is going on? And why in the world is all of this only now coming out?

Well, we can certainly point to the obvious reasons – it’s hard, it takes courage, and the possibility of being blamed and fired is very real. But, there is a lot of research on why voices are silenced, and I think that research could provide some deeper answers. (Pardon me as I return to my academic roots.)

Muted group theory, for example, describes how the dominant group contributes to the formulation of language, and members of subordinate groups then have to learn and use the dominate group’s language to express themselves. Some main assumptions of this theory are that, because men are the dominate group, women must find ways to express themselves using “men’s language” even though they aren’t men, and thus have to go through a translation process when speaking. In the context of sexual harassment, this means that women may not be able to truly express what happened or how they feel about it in a way that men would understand. As reporting harassment becomes more normal, the “mutedness” may dissipate and the ability to express themselves becomes easier for those who have been harassed.

Along those same lines, popular discourse within a group informs what we can and can’t say, and inside an organization, logical and rational discourse is certainly much more valued, while emotional and relational discourse is not. Of course, sexual harassment is the latter, further adding to the mutedness of targets. Further, discourse about winning and victory are encouraged, while discourse about being a target certainly are not.

In addition, our identities are tied into our work. Most of us would rather share stories of our own victories and accomplishments as we engage in identity management, as those stories are in line with our preferred identities. So being a “victim” of harassment really goes against what most of us would like to put out there for the world to see.

There are also many linguistic micropractices that discourage speaking up when harassed. For example, disqualification refers to comments like, “You’re just being sensitive,” which of course disqualifies the target’s voice. Neutralization hides values, and then treats activities as if they were value-free. In other words, people treat problems like harassment as inevitable; powerful people will most certainly take advantage of less powerful people – it’s inevitable. This perception stomps out morality: Although harassment goes against most of our values it is, after all, inevitable.

There are a lot of other linguistic reasons we can point to about why people don’t report harassment, bullying or violence. The bottom line is that there is a lot under the radar working against, rather than encouraging, targets. In fact, while the definition of harassment includes “a reasonable person” would find it hostile, only unreasonable people actually file complaints with HR. Retaliation is of course inevitable, which closes the door on the possibility of successfully surviving the investigation and outcome. It takes a crazy, unreasonable person to stand up against society. (The EEOC Task Force report found that only 1 in 4 people are crazy enough to do it.)

So what can you do? 

Most of what I’ve talked about here are the subtle nuances of language and society that push people down. So, your first step is to work against those nuances. Notice, for example, how I’ve used “target” instead of “victim” throughout this piece. “Survivor” would be even better.

In addition, HR professionals can help create a safe space for reporting harassment and bullying by talking about it openly. Oftentimes, harassment doesn’t come up until a mandatory training, or until something big hits the fan. HR can bring up the topic of harassment and the importance of creating a safe and respectful work environment much more often than that.

In the end, the best thing and organization can do is focus on creating a civil, positive, respectful and inclusive work environment. Doing so opens the doors for all voices, makes telling each other when someone is out of line a lot easier, and minimizes the risk of people engaging in negative behavior. That’s because the culture makes being socially isolated, and even fired, for harassment… inevitable.

Talk soon,

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Catherine Mattice Zundel

About Catherine Mattice Zundel

Catherine Mattice Zundel, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. . Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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