Preparing Your Local Government for “the Reckoning”

Posted on August 2, 2018

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Executive Director’s note: this submission was received from an ELGL with the request that it be published anonymously. Here at ELGL, we always accept anonymous submissions because we know that the power of local government storytelling doesn’t always occur at the perfect time in our careers. If you have a story to tell, we want to tell it, especially when it is timely, relevant, and important. If you wish to respond to this post or reach out to the author, please email me and I can share your contact information with the author.

We are bathed in the news of high power politicians, entertainers and celebrity elite facing sexual harassment allegations.  What does this mean for those of us in local government?

A few observations:

First, a technical line of thought. Local government will not be immune to this time of reckoning.  It is clear that the recent wave of individuals coming forward to tell their story is just that.  A growing, surging wave.  A movement.  And it’s only growing larger and stronger, not calmly washing back out to sea.

Sooner or later, the wave is going to reach your local government organization if it hasn’t already.

The crisis communication professional in me advises you to pretend you have a situation in front of you and think through how you will respond.

Draft a few key messages – some meant for internal communication, some for external sources like the media.

Be proactive and bold.  Put the issue on your next staff or leadership agenda.  Talk as a team about how you will respond if and when an accusation about someone in your organization occurs. Do you have a policy and standard procedures in place?  Is it well communicated throughout your organization?

Speaking of procedures, here’s another workplace consideration: find a way to encourage anyone in your organization who feels they have been a victim of inappropriate behavior to come forward in a safe space.

Recognize the risk your organization is taking if you require mandatory anti-harassment training and then look the other way when concerns are brought forward.  If employees bring forward claims and nothing happens, they will stop bringing forward concerns.

This is devastating for your organizational culture. While it may stay quiet momentarily, it will eventually erupt.

If you are aware of a colleague or elected official who staff intentionally try to avoid for concern of what they might say or do to make them uncomfortable, while you may not have a formal harassment claim (yet) – you definitely have a problem.

Don’t just say there is zero tolerance for harassment.  Mean it.

On a more personal level, another suggestion:

Several years ago there was a column for the ELGL #13percent campaign that urged all those who work in local gov to adhere to one guideline: If you see something or hear something, say something. 

If you witness a colleague or elected official behave in an inappropriate manner, do not sit quietly and let it happen.  This doesn’t necessarily mean activating the giant red alert, filing a claim or calling the media.  I get that these situations in the workplace are complex and a little touchy to handle with discretion.  This is true for anyone who witnesses this behavior, but especially true for those who directly experience it.

At a minimum, approach the colleague who was the victim of the inappropriate behavior and let them know you noticed and that they are not alone.  Validating their experience is one of the most powerful things you can do to prevent a culture of fear and silence.

If you happen to have a relationship with the person who acted inappropriately where you feel comfortable confronting them, do it. If there is a clear pattern of inappropriate behavior by a co-worker or elected official, maybe take the next step and make sure a superior is aware of the activity.

At that point, it is on them to do something about it.  Ultimately, if they don’t do anything you have to make the decision to escalate the matter or be at peace with it. This is a decision only you can make.

Finally, be aware that everyone is processing this time of reckoning a little differently.  I’ve interacted with men who are hyper-sensitive about their comments and any physical contact, as if they are afraid that someone will accuse them of something with ill intent.

I’ve also witnessed some, mostly women, who are also hyper-sensitive.  In an “our day has finally come, let’s get ’em girls” kind of way.

Not to mention there is a new story of demise at the hands of this reckoning every day.  So I get the sense of paranoia.  But don’t take it too far.  Congratulatory or consolatory hugs for colleagues you care about, male or female, aren’t suddenly against the rules. Neither is good spirited, non-threatening humor.

Rule of thumb:

If you wouldn’t slide your hand down on to your Aunt Bertha’s lower back or hip giving her a hug, don’t do it to a colleague.

If you wouldn’t want to see the joke or witty response attributed to you publicly, don’t say it.

And, if someone hugs you not in an Aunt Bertha kind of way and it feels wrong, it is wrong.    If a “joke” isn’t funny and makes you feel uncomfortable, it is wrong. Make that clear in a way that works for you, and this applies to everyone.

We all have a duty to uphold workplaces that are safe and respectful for all. 

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