08/03/2019 – Business / HR / International Women's Day

Post-#MeToo: The new rules of engagement for global businesses

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As we mark International Women’s Day (Friday 8th March), international HR expert and the CEO of VeryHR, Julie Provino, describes the cultural recalibration required across the world of work, and explains why geography shouldn't change harassment policies in a global company.


Harassment is everywhere. It has existed since the beginning of time and will unfortunately still exist in years and even centuries to come. It is part of our nature – our egos are built in such a way that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others. We look for differences and form subjective opinions about what makes us better or worse than those around us.


None of us are immune


During the 20 or so years working in the Human Resources industry, I have been the victim, the observer, and – on occasions – even the culprit of some form of harassment, both perceived and real. I will always remember when I, as the only female in the executive team, was asked to stand in front of 600 employees alongside our all-female team of PAs to receive a bouquet. The flowers were to thank us for our efforts in organising a two-day event. However, I was on the leadership team and not one of the PAs. Furthermore, none of my male colleagues on the leadership team were recognised for their own efforts. Although I understood this act came from a place of kindness, I couldn't help but be offended.


I can also recall a case where a General Manager in France made a series of derogatory comments about a female member of staff and how, against my own conscious, I manufactured a mutual separation deal to ‘protect’ her from him and future actions. She was the victim but ultimately, she was the one ‘punished’ with the loss of her job.


Finally, I cannot help but recall moments in my life where, in a similar way to how Simon Cowell behaved when he first met Susan Boyle, I have been quick to make judgements about people. Indeed, this is one of the critical issues we all face when recruiting the perfect candidate.


The potential to be harassed and to harass is in all of us. 


A recent case of role-reversal


Although harassment is considered ‘illegal’ in some countries, in others, some forms of harassment are tolerated. Less than a couple of months ago, I witnessed harassment-like behaviour in a Middle Eastern country from a female colleague towards a male one. After further investigation, the harassment turned out to be real. It was also being allowed to continue. Typically, women tend to be more on the receiving end. They are more empathetic, which can leave them vulnerable. In this case however, the roles were reversed.  

In that scenario, I took it upon myself to put a stop to it. No matter where in the world it is taking place, or which gender is doing the harassing, it is not acceptable. Belittling a colleague, especially in front of peers, should never be tolerated. 


Zero-tolerance approach


As an international leader, I am aware of cultural differences. I am more than happy to abide by local rules and customs and adapt to the tacit laws of the environment in which I operate. With time and experience, however, I have developed a zero-tolerance approach to anything that impedes on respecting others. Isn't this why we are called Human Resources? As HR, of course, we follow and abide by the law – however, I would also argue that HR professionals and international leaders need to go beyond that. In this recent case, I took it upon myself to take action and discipline said individual – to the silent relief of many in the office. I then reminded the leadership of its company values and what the company stands for. I consider both the individual's behaviour and the fact the company leadership stood back and let it happen remedial in terms of my beliefs around how a human should be treated in the workplace.


A statement of equal opportunities


Harassment is everywhere…and it is ingrained in us. That is a given. On the other hand, love and respect of each other are also ingrained qualities. The law is only here to provide guidance and punishment. It has its limitations within its own operating environment, which will vary between countries. There will never be a consensus on where harassment begins and ends. What may be deemed inappropriate in the eyes of one – such as receiving a bunch of flowers – may be accepted as a gesture of thankfulness and goodwill to another. What may be perceived as being accepted – such as making comments as to how short a skirt should be for a meeting – may have a crippling effect on the other. For this reason, we shouldn't be just talking in terms of policies.


We should instead look to a statement of equal opportunities within organisations – one created by the organisation that sets the standard and outlines the rules of accepted behaviour, regardless of which country a person is based. Focus on positive empowerment and on a no-nonsense approach, specifically focusing on the human, and on equal treatment – regardless of social, cultural or geographical boundaries.


Julie Provino is an international HR leader and the founder of HR consultancy VeryHR. To find out more, visit: www.VeryHR.co.uk

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