Higher ed office policies in a #MeToo world

Strategies to enable people to engage with each other civilly and respectfully

Campuses, like businesses, are feeling the effects of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. Some prefer to call them another example of the power of the #MeToo movement.

Whatever the name, the Kavanaugh “news peg” is not over.

This piece focuses on some impacts of those hearings, as well as selected strategies administrators can deploy to ensure a civil workplace. To be sure, each institution needs to fit these ideas within its own culture.

Start with this: There is a high probability that a significant percentage of any workforce (men and women) has been sexually assaulted, howsoever calculated (UBmag.me/inc), and many of these individuals have not shared their experiences (UBmag.me/wdv) privately let alone publicly.

Indeed, it is likely that the Kavanaugh hearings triggered many memories for many people. For these individuals, the hearings were like stirring up a pot of stew on a hot stove. For some, the pot is boiling.

Behavioral changes

It is likely that many people exhibit some behavioral changes such as moodiness, anxiety, isolation and a wariness to engage with others, especially those of the opposite sex.

It is also likely that culture is shifting in ways that go unacknowledged or unanticipated. There may be arguments. Workers may be sharing their own personal history.

There may be fewer parties and after-work events. With the approaching holidays, how will these gatherings be structured?

So, we need some strategies that will enable people to engage with each other civilly and respectfully.

  • First, leaders within the organization need to be role models and take that role seriously. No dating or taking subordinates out to dinner alone.When traveling with a subordinate on business, avoid visits to sex clubs, do not overdrink, avoid pickups in bars and refrain from lewd jokes. No “boys will be boys” locker room talk. And do not respond to these suggestions by calling for and having “all male” events.
  • Second, there needs to be a safe place where employees can lodge complaints of sexual assault or offensive conduct.Human resources offices usually serve this function, but with respect to those who do this work now, I believe there should be another avenue for reporting that is less tied to management and appears to be independent.

    Perhaps a hotline could be set up, or there could be a place—preferably private—to submit written complaints confidentially.

  • Third, we need to encourage people to report behavior that is offensive or abusive. We need to move beyond the perception that reporting wrongdoing is tattling on co-workers or superiors.In a sense, this is an honor code, and it is difficult to institute, particularly when bad behavior and cover-ups have been going on for years.
  • Fourth, if there has been a history of past misconduct, leaders need to own it, no matter when it occurred. Hire outside investigators if necessary to ensure objectivity. Share the report and next steps to remediate.Now is not the time to hide bad deeds under the proverbial carpet.
  • Fifth and finally, we need to speak to each other civilly. We need to demonstrate respect—real respect.We need to send appropriate memos and emails. We need to be careful with humor that can be misunderstood. We can disagree on issues, but we can do so in a way that does not humiliate anyone. And name-calling is not allowed.

I want to be clear; I’m not suggesting that people stop engaging with each other.

Instead, in light of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the #MeToo movement, ask yourself: How would you want your own daughter (real or hypothetical) to be treated in her workplace?

Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit schools.

Karen Gross
Karen Gross
An author and educator, Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College, and was a senior advisor to the Department of Education during the Obama Administration.

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