We are witnessing a sea change in the conversation about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. From Hollywood, to Congress, to major media companies, powerful men are facing professional consequences for their mistreatment of less powerful employees, mentees and admirers.
I have followed all the cases being tried in the media. Some are clearer than others. There are accusers whose stories are clear as day and corroborated by the perpetrators themselves. There is the political part of all this which can make it hard to even have a conversation. It is rough territory.
What was deemed acceptable 10 years ago is simply not okay today. Like many people looking back over their careers amid the #MeToo movement, I have been reminded of the office parties and offsite events that got a little crazy. Jokes are made and we all laugh about it nervously. I know that when I heard the rumors and the jokes, I didn’t step up and say that was wrong. It was part of the office culture. But it’s not funny. It’s not even close to funny. And when we allow that kind of culture to persist, it opens the door for a lot worse to happen.
I am reminded, too, of my own experiences years ago with workplace harassment and the lessons I took away from those encounters. In the past, I’ve found myself in dark bars talking to superiors over candle light. The late-night, romantic atmosphere was okay, I told myself, because men often got ahead in their careers through these types of more casual, social meetings. Didn’t women deserve the same opportunities? Often, I planned these offsite meetings.
Looking back, though, I can say with confidence that none of those meetings over dinner or drinks impacted my career in any meaningful way. In fact, they made things more complicated. When a manager once asked me to have an affair, I said no but then promptly launched into a big speech about how much I loved working for him and how fascinating I found the job to be. It was well-received, and I learned that those kinds of situations could be managed. But they shouldn’t have to be.
Let me be clear: There is zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. But I believe there are steps we can take to strengthen common codes of conduct and disrupt harmful corporate cultures that foster abuse. Here are a few of them.
Stick to an open-door policy
Think about it: This is a workplace. Why do you need to have one-on-one conversations behind closed doors? You can speak in an office or a private workroom about sensitive business matters, but just leave the door open. The worst that will happen is someone walking by might hear a fragment of your conversation. It’s really not the end of the world. And leaving the door open will reduce the risk of something being misunderstood or misreported.
Stand up for people
No more laughing at inappropriate jokes or rumors; work with extreme respect for both men and women. There shouldn’t be a way you act with men that’s different from the way you act with women.
Think about the purpose of every work event you take part in
Ask yourself: If you’re going to dinner with an employer or an employee, what is the purpose of that dinner? If the purpose has nothing to do with work, you shouldn’t be going. Think before you decide to go: Are you really comfortable with the purpose of the meeting?
Bring other people to meetings or events that take place outside of the office
One-on-one dinners in a dark restaurant where there’s an extreme age range — my god, that’s a bad idea. If you want to meet with your employer or employee in a more casual, social setting, bring family or friends along. And it shouldn’t be late at night. Why can’t you have lunch instead? Make sure that the time and place are appropriate for any event happening outside of the office.
Promote people for the right reasons
Elevate people who have both strong leadership skills, and a strong moral compass. If you have someone on staff who likes to flirt and go out late and drink all night, that’s probably not someone you want in a leadership role at your company.
Look to create diversity at all levels of the company
There should be a balance between men and women at the office, and not just in the lower to mid-levels. Having more diversity in the upper tiers of management will bring different ideas to the table and help your business perform better.
Don’t feel like you need to leverage your looks to get ahead
For young women especially, this starts you down a bad path. Instead of using your looks to get ahead in your career, trust that your skillset will speak for itself.
Push back in real time
One of the things this movement has highlighted is the dreaded gray area: You’re not sure if someone has said or done something inappropriate, so you stay silent, in real time. Don’t be afraid to use your voice in those situations. Ask what exactly the person who made you uncomfortable meant by that weird remark or gesture. If that person does it again or seems to be treating you differently because you demanded a clarification, that is harassment and you have to respond. But we’re all imperfect humans, and sometimes we misunderstand each other. The only way to know for sure is to push back in real time. See it. Say it. Be clear. Be in the moment.
I don’t want women to be excluded. I don’t want good male leaders to be afraid to hire and promote women. I fear we are headed that way. In this era of accountability, let’s not pull women back; Let’s make this a real step forward.
Progress must include due process and an honest conversation.
Mika Brzezinski is the co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. She is a former CBS News anchor and correspondent who contributed to 60 Minutes and anchored the CBS Weekend News. Mika is also the bestselling author of four books including Knowing Your Value and Growing Your Value.