Indeed, it is an interesting time with so much continuing to come out in Hollywood, the media, other industries, and even our state government related to the sexual harassment of women – women who have remained silent for years. Like those women, I too have been harassed in various ways over the course of my career, even in recent years – and yes, even in top leadership roles. The newspaper headline about my departure or the email citing that I was moving on never fully told the real story. But now, hands are being raised and social media is full of hashtags and likes finally bringing attention to this long-standing problem.

The attention brought about by the #MeToo movement takes me back to another influential time in my life when I stepped away from my first role leading a company as president. I put my career on hold for eight months to take on bullying at a prestigious, private high school, after finding out what had happened to one of my own children. That was nearly 13 years ago, when there wasn’t yet a national spotlight on the growing bullying epidemic. In fact, I was told by the president of the high school at the time that there wasn’t a bullying problem at the school. I helped him and others see that there was a big problem impacting hundreds of young people, and even some of the adults working at the school. More importantly, over a two and half year period, I worked with a dedicated team of staff, teachers, students, and outside advisors to do something about it. We developed an anti-bullying program that proudly exists today and is run by the students at the school, something we set out to accomplish from the very beginning.

Acting as Allies in the Era of #MeToo

Sexual harassment is bullying. It’s about power. The upside of #MeToo is that it shines a light on a very real power imbalance between the genders that has existed for decades. But, as women, I’d argue that we’ve made fearful a group of people that really needs to help us and may not know how. In the era of #MeToo, having men step up to help women and stand for them as allies is critical for positive change to happen.

I know women and men are both asking what they can do. Here are some of the powerful lessons I learned in that high school bullying experience that are worth transferring to our workplaces to not only help provide women safe and equal opportunities, but to gain understanding and support of both genders.

  • Educate our team members on what bullying/harassment behavior really looks like… both in the offline and online worlds. It has to go beyond having a policy in a handbook.
  • Believe a "target" when they come forth to share what has happened to her/him. It’s not easy for a person to speak up about being harassed.
  • Shift the focus from the target having the problem to the person doing the harassing. Too often the dialogue begins with what the target did to result in that treatment.
  • Provide a safe place for a target to speak up. Identify trusted advocates/allies who will listen and can help.
  • Help the target find her/his voice and speak up to the bully in that moment that the behavior is wrong and will not be tolerated.
  • Educate "bystanders/others" about the importance of them standing up to the bully to support the target and take action if they witness it happening to others.
  • Provide appropriate help to both the bully and the target. Work towards the bully showing genuine remorse for their bad behavior and its impact on the target and apologizing to the target.
  • Be intentional about creating work environments that will not tolerate bullying/harassment behavior. Take a hard look at the behaviors of the top leaders and what they are role-modeling and rewarding.

Most importantly, we need to treat people with dignity and respect, a core value that each and every organization should want to live by. Think about how people will actually show up to work in environments where that is how they are truly treated. Sexual harassment is a real problem – let’s focus even more time and energy on preventing it once and for all.

Kim Graham Lee is chief executive officer of the Integrating Women Leaders Foundation.

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