Society tells men they can’t be sexually harassed. This leads to them experiencing unwanted behavior in the workplace and then being afraid to report it.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced earlier this month that Monro Inc., owner of more than a thousand auto care locations in the United States, agreed to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit alleging that, according to the EEOC’s press release, “multiple male employees were subjected to repeated physical abuse and sexual comments by a supervisor and by co-workers at multiple locations in Illinois and Iowa. For example, several employees were forcibly groped in the groin or other private areas and subjected to graphic sexual language in the workplace on multiple occasions.”
This settlement comes at a time when horrific allegations were made against several players on the New Mexico State University men’s basketball team.
According to the NMSU Police Department, in the team’s locker room, as recently as Feb. 6, 2023, a player alleged that three teammates took his clothes off, held him face down and exposed and slapped his buttocks and touched his scrotum. The player said he had no choice but to let it happen because there were three players engaging in the behavior.
The program, although not a “workplace,” has since been shut down for the season, but that will not alleviate the trauma inflicted on the alleged victim. There were reportedly previous issues with this program last fall.
Unfortunately, society normalizes that men cannot be sexually harassed. For example, singer Katy Perry tricked a young man into his first kiss during an audition on “American Idol.” Although he said afterward that he was upset by her actions, her job as an “American Idol” judge was not impacted. Society views abuse of men, especially by women, as funny and not objectionable. If one of the male judges had tricked a woman into a kiss, the outcome likely would have been quite different.
Although the majority of investigations I conduct involve men allegedly engaging in inappropriate conduct toward women, harassment is not a one-size-fits-all behavior. Men harass other women and men. Women harass other women and men. Harassment remains rampant in today’s workplace despite decades of laws, policies and training.
All of this comes down to culture and expectations set by leadership. Organizations get the culture they deserve.
Too often organizations fail to make clear that men have a right to be free from harassment and discrimination, and this leads to shame and avoidance of bringing concerns to the attention of the organization.
In addition to sexual harassment, men can be subjected to general violence in the workplace. This can include behaviors ranging from bullying to assault involving knives and guns.
I tell organizations to use the drop-of-pond-scum analogy. If there is a drop of pond scum in your workplace (i.e., inappropriate jokes, touching, objectionable conduct), remove it because it spoils the entire environment.
During a recent training, a man described his experience as a summer intern of having a man follow him into the bathroom. As he urinated, the man would urinate at the urinal right next to him. This happened over and over. He didn’t feel empowered to speak up, so he said nothing. When describing this encounter that happened years earlier, he was clearly traumatized. He remembered it like it was yesterday.
Organizations need first and foremost to set expectations. This can be accomplished through policies, annual training and consistent messaging from leadership. Most important, leadership must model the expectations and make clear what is acceptable conduct – and what is not.
When an allegation of inappropriate behavior is made, organizations need a trained individual who can conduct an objective and unbiased investigation and get to the truth. Everyone deserves fairness in the process. No one should be retaliated against. Everyone fears retaliation.
Finally, accountability is king. Anyone demonstrating a drop of pond scum (i.e., inappropriate behaviors) must be removed from the workplace, regardless of gender, race, etc. Organizations need to stop giving offenders excuses and justification. Unacceptable conduct should lead to a consistent result: termination of employment.