How Can You Lead In Tricky Situations When Lines Are Blurred At Work?

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Fear. Extreme discomfort. That nauseating feeling in your gut.

These are just a few different emotions I remember feeling when I was asked a long time ago by a client to come over to his loft for a late supper.

Fresh out of university, excited and pumped about my first job at a pharmaceutical company, I tried very hard to understand what an entry-level executive was expected to do. Such an experience left me feeling threatened and frightened.

When I approached my manager to ask for advice on how to deal with the issue, his only response to me was (with some laughter), “This is all normal. You’ll just need to learn how to deal with it and let it slide.”

Picture a 21-year-old, with absolutely no professional working experience, needing to digest that statement. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to see the senior manager. My values and beliefs didn’t allow for me to “let it slide.” Regretfully, I had to resign and I left with a very negative impression of the industry entirely.

Today I see a lot of young graduates, who just like me at that time, struggle with such experiences. What worries me the most is that they are unable to understand the inappropriateness that is blatantly staring at them.

Whether we like it or not, harassment happens at all levels within an organisational structure. Many times, as drivers of the organisations we serve in, we are unaware of such things simply because our employees don’t speak up. As leaders, how can we start to create a safe environment for our people?

Educate your people through awareness

While actions speak louder than words, awareness creates the avenue to allow for actions to manifest. Educate your employees and management on how to handle workplace harassment (across the board).

There are many types of actions that are classified as harassment. How do we detect these behaviours? What can we do if we notice someone displaying acts of harassment? How can we support the victims in these situations?

Make it a point to include workplace harassment awareness as part of your induction or monthly learning programmes. It will go a long way, as the knowledge gained can also be used outside of the workplace.

Empathise and listen

In any sort of situation, a victim is subject to trauma—physical, emotional and/or mental. Put yourself in their shoes first, especially if they’re young and new to the working world.

Sometimes, they may seem aloof and are completely unconcerned about what’s happening. Is that because they’re deliberately numbing the situation and downplaying it so they don’t appear as weak? Or is it truly because they are unaware of what’s happening?

Listen without judgment, empathise and provide unbiased counsel. They need to know that it isn’t their fault. And they need to know that whatever had happened is not okay.

Empower people to support

Within the context of an organisational structure, this support system is usually human resources. However, everyone can be a source of support.

When an employee can walk up to their chief executive officer and ask for a minute without feeling intimidated, you know their doors are truly always open.

When the tea lady can support an executive struggling to deal with harassment from a supervisor, you know that everyone has the potential to lead responsibly.

Leaders, who are willing to provide support, form a bond of trust and loyalty with their people.

Of course, there are many other ways to understand, learn and address workplace harassment (keep reading this issue to educate yourselves!).

Some people may find this a sensitive subject, unimportant and perhaps irrelevant to leadership.

However, let me put it this way: If my first manager was willing to stand up for me, empathise with the situation and educate me on clear ways to deal with such clients in that first job, there was a very high chance that I wouldn’t have made the drastic decision to resign.

Your turn

Do you know of someone experiencing workplace harassment? If a name pops up in your mind as you read this, then you know what to do—educate, empathise, empower.

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