Assistants and the #Metoo Movement

I’m Bonnie Low-Kramen. I’m the author of Be The Ultimate Assistant. I’m a speaker and a trainer, and most of all, I am a human, who cares deeply about this issue, this global epidemic, that is sexual harassment.

My goal for this presentation today is to give you a lot of up to the minute data to offer you language that will support you and give you the confidence to share this information with your leaders and your colleagues.

For 25 years, I worked as the Personal Assistant to Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis. I recall vividly that she would often come back from Hollywood and tell me horrifying stories of how women were treated in Hollywood, especially assistance, sexually harassed, bullied. Over the last eight years, I have travelled to many places and talked with many Assistants. I can tell you that this issue of sexual harassment and bullying is an issue. Everywhere I’ve gone, women all over the world are talking about this.

Just after the #metoo began in December 2017, I travelled to more countries and Assistants were so relieved about what was happening in America, because what that was doing was making it safer to begin the conversations in their workplaces. So you know, frankly, I’m happy I live to see the day that we’re talking about this issue with such openness.

Let’s be clear. I’m a feminist. But this is not a women’s issue. This is not a men’s issue. This is a human issue. And I’m not here to say that this is women versus men, even though what I’m going to be sharing is that women are the primary targets of sexual harassment. But if we are to have a long term solution for ourselves, for our daughters, for our sons, for the people coming up behind us in the workplace, if we’re going to break the cycle of these negative behaviours finally, it is going to take all of us this is an absolutely human issue. And there’s a lot at stake.

Most of the Assistants I speak to at conferences have experienced some form of bullying. And sexual harassment is just one form of bullying. It’s typically 70% of our audiences who have witnessed or experienced it. The trauma of bullying and the subsequent behaviours are things like anger and sadness and depression and distraction and resentment. I will ask audiences how long does the trauma last? Does it last just the day it happens? Or the week it happens? Or the month that it happens? And they yell back to me. No. It lasts for years. It lasts forever.

It’s not okay.

So, since 2017, heads have been rolling. Seriously, isn’t it true that not a week goes by that we don’t hear about another case, a high profile case of a person being accused? And it’s not only entertainment. It’s sports and the corporate world, for sure. The silence is broken.

The newest hashtag #askhermore certainly alludes to that. We have to keep the conversation going. Ask the women in our workplaces, is there a problem? What are you experiencing?

There is another factor here. The examples I’m sharing in this presentation are famous. I’m not famous; I’m sure I’m pretty sure that most of the people listening to this presentation or not famous.

So what do everyday women do about this problem?

That’s part of the reason I’m doing this presentation because we’re not millionaires and we don’t have money to hire high priced lawyers and bring lawsuits and cases to court.

Here is some more data that since 2017, there have been and there’s been an all-time high incidence of cases that had been brought to civil court and through the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (based in the USA).

What this is indicative of is that women are finally, because of the #metoo movement, have felt safer to speak up about these issues about what’s really going on in the workplace.

Good things are happening as a result.

I speak with women all over the world, and they are not feeling so alone anymore.

It’s in feeling alone that silence has been reigning supreme.

As I mentioned, sexual harassment is only one form of bullying. This thing is a global epidemic. And it’s hurting companies, and it’s hurting the human beings in those organisations.

Let’s be clear about what bullies do the kinds of behaviours that are exhibited in the workplace day in day out. We’re talking about yelling and ostracising. Using profanity, humiliation, nasty emails, and threats. I feel sure these behaviours look somewhat familiar to you.

In the United States, there are zero laws against workplace bullying, in part because leaders are having trouble defining it. There are laws against sexual harassment, though. And that is why we have all of these cases being brought forth. Companies are paying a very high price for allowing and tolerating these behaviours. Certainly, one of the high prices they’re paying is in actual dollars and cents because it costs money to settle these cases. It costs companies in the high turnover of staff.

And then there’s presenteeism.

Presenteeism is the phenomenon where a staffer is at their desk, oh, they’re there, but they’re not really there. They’re doing the bare minimum to do their job.

The latest news is that leaders of companies are contacting lawyers all over the USA to ask what kind of new policies do we need against sexual harassment? How do we protect ourselves? What kind of training should we be instituting so that we don’t have to pay big money and settlements.

I see this as excellent news that law firms are involved in setting policies and creating new guidelines that actually work because lots of companies have rules about sexual harassment. But some of those same companies do not put muscle into those policies.

It is easier to have these conversations with leaders and HR. For Assistants, our very best move is, to be honest about what we see and what we hear and keep it fact-based. We need to speak the truth about what’s really going on.

And then there’s coaching and education.

We need talented coaches who are knowledgeable about this problem. And we need an education that is up to the minute quality education based on fact, and about what is needed to move to break the cycle of these negative behaviours that are going on in the workplace.

The only way we can move this problem into a solution is to speak up is, to tell the truth about what’s going on. And it feels like a risk. I know it feels like a risk, and it takes courage to speak up. But here’s the thing, you know the fact is that if the harasser if a bully is harassing one person, the chances are very good that they’re bullying and harassing more than one person.

So if this is happening to you, you’re probably not alone.

It’s important to connect with your colleagues and take the risk to ask, is this happening to you, too? This is happening to me. Is this happening to you?

This is a dark and ugly problem. It’s going to take some hard work here. So what do we do? What do Assistants do, who are not famous and not millionaires?

There is power in numbers.

We need to find our mentors, experienced people in our workplace, who care about cultures of respect and actually to ask those questions. We need to seek our mentors to get help with these issues.

There are people in our workplaces who want to help. I see it more and more.

If you are being bullied or harassed, it is essential to document what’s going on and share the specifics with your leaders.

Fact-based reporting is essential.

It’s not enough to say, Oh, you know, Joe, always, you know, looks at me and comments on me know, it’s really imperative to say, on Tuesday, at two o’clock, this happened. And on Friday, this happened. It has to be specific because there’s no arguing with documented details. Even better, if there are witnesses who heard what was going on. And then, of course, use the hotline if you feel safe to do so.

One of the problems as I travel and I speak with Assistants is that they struggle for the exact words to use when confronting a bully or harasser. One of the best books on bullying is Taming the Abrasive Manager by Dr Laura Crawshaw. There is also Speaking your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations and Crucial Conversations.

There is no room in the workplace of 2019 and beyond to have bullying. There’s far too much at stake in our workplace at this point. We are in a global environment. We’ve got this proliferation of technology. There’s so much going on, we’ve got a lot of people working virtually, which actually is a help to the sexual harassment problem.

Thank you, Bonnie, for this wonderful guest post on Assistants and the #Metoo Movement.