Oct 19

Zero tolerance for sexually derogatory comments at work

The US Republican Presidential candidate’s recent comments regarding his attitudes and behaviour towards women are utterly appalling. In response to universal condemnation, Donald Trump has attempted to justify his behaviour by saying, amongst other things, that it was “locker-room talk”. This attempted justification appears to refer to some implicit rule that when men are in a male-only space, then all bets (read, in this context: civilised and respectful discourse) are off.

His assumption is that what is said in a “locker room” and “between men” occurs in some sort of parallel or existential universe, a universe that is, in some way, outside of the realm of the rule of law, of any sense of professional standards or codes of conduct, of any level of respect, courtesy or even just basic human decency.

Happily, there has already been a number of high profile US sport professionals who have responded to this assumption in turn. They have publicly declared that the types of conversations that Mr Trump alludes to as part of the locker room zeitgeist is not in fact, part of their locker room discussions, and that such foul and demeaning language regarding women is anathema to them.

 

“Boys will be boys…”

 

From an Australian perspective, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that the defence of “locker room talk” for repugnant behaviour is not a term, thankfully, which is frequently or explicitly on the radar.

Perhaps its nearest equivalent could be that fatalistic expression “boys will be boys”, or, the acknowledgement that a certain workplace culture reflects a “boy’s club mentality”. These phrases of themselves are concerning if they are used as an excuse to suggest that there is nothing that one can do to confront misogynistic comments or attitudes in the workplace, often concomitant with exclusion and career blockage.

To paraphrase somewhat, the price of appropriate behaviour in the workplace is eternal vigilance.

Employers need to be careful to always ensure that their workplace culture is inclusive and does not in any way, either implicitly or explicitly, encourage the idea that “alpha male banter” or “talk amongst the men” justifies comments which are derogatory towards females.

Sexually derogatory comments towards women can particularly be prone to occur in those areas of employment where women have traditionally not been as visible or involved, such as in mining, manufacturing or engineering, for example.

 

Creating a supportive bystander culture

 

What is interesting to reflect on, when such comments are made, is not just who is making them, and who they are directed towards, but also who is hearing them and what they can do to identify, intervene and challenge such language. There are clear ways in which passive bystanders can act so that they become supportive bystanders, including:
1. Not encouraging or supporting the behaviour.

2. Directly intervening by telling the perpetrator that their behaviour is unacceptable, and by defending the victim.

3. Reporting the behaviour to HR, a manager, a colleague, a union or a whistle-blower process.

4. Supporting the victim.
You can read more about these strategies in our recent article, “The innocent bystander – what would you do?”

 

Challenge mindsets

 

Apart from encouraging a supportive bystander culture, it is absolutely fundamental to challenge mindsets where anyone might think it is acceptable to make such derogatory comments.

Refresher training on workplace values and conduct is a great place to confirm what are the standards and expectations of behaviour that you all wish your employees to acknowledge and adhere to.

At the same time, it is useful to also include opportunities in your training to get a real conversation going, so that, in particular, those old chestnuts, including, “it’s just a joke”, “I’m a bloke – I’ve always said that”, or, “political correctness won’t stop me”, can be unpacked and explored against the laws of the land, your values and codes of conduct, and what it means to be a truly respectful employee.

By challenging mindsets and creating a supportive bystander culture, you can help ensure your company enforces a zero tolerance policy for derogatory comments and inappropriate behaviours towards women in the workplace.

 

About Grevis Beard

Grevis Beard

 

Grevis Beard is the co-founder and director of Worklogic. From his career as a barrister and solicitor and his specialisation in discrimination law, Grevis has significant knowledge of the dynamics of workplace disputes and their resolution. Grevis works with a range of clients to improve workplace communication, manage workplace risks, handle complaints and improve employee behaviour.

 

Worklogic works with employers to resolve workplace complaints and create a positive culture at work.  We can help you develop organisational values and ethical codes of conduct that provide a powerful framework for appropriate behaviour at work.  We also deliver interactive on-site training programs to help your staff become supportive bystanders, challenge mindsets and to reinforce your values.

If you would like help with strategies to create an inclusive culture at your workplace, please contact Grevis via email or give him a call on (03) 9981 6500.

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