October 2, 2018

Thanks to the #metoo movement and recent research, we know that the media industry has a culture of sexual harassment that harms both individuals and organizations. As a newsroom leader, do you have a plan to combat this?

Hannah Storm, director of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and a freelance media and gender consultant, offered guidance on addressing sexual harassment in the workplace in June during Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. In her presentation called “Us Too: Changing Culture and Countering Sexual Harassment,” she encouraged leaders to first recognize it’s not a one-time or one-person effort. To change culture, you need to educate yourself, gather feedback on the diversity of opinions in your newsroom, and be vigilant. The #metoo movement started the conversation; it’s incumbent upon leaders to continue it.

RELATED ARTICLE: Shamed into silence: Female journalists are disproportionately targeted for sexual harassment and assault — and I’m proof.

Here are Storm’s tips for leading this cultural shift.

Study up

Step one is to name the problem. The definition of “sexual harassment” can feel murky — it certainly was when participants in Storm’s presentation attempted to write down everything they thought it encompassed — but having a clear understanding of the problem is important for taking seriously employee complaints, updating policies and holding people accountable.

Start by gathering information about your organization’s current policies. Compare with the legal definition of sexual harassment from the EEOC and update if necessary.

Sexual Harassment
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

For example, you may not realize that “it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.” You may also need to seriously consider that your employees can be sexually harassed at work from someone you don’t employ, like a source or internet trolls.

Step two is to remember the human toll of sexual harassment on your employees and your news organization. Harassed people tend to experience mental health issues like significant trauma, shame and stress, and physical health issues like loss of sleep and appetite. As employees, harassed people lose motivation and productivity — and eventually leave. Storm cites a recent study that shows around 80 percent of women who are sexually harassed and are early in their career leave their job within two years.

As you know, it’s hard to hire and retrain employees. But did you know that for each employee affected, sexual harassment costs organizations $22,500 a year in lost productivity? News organizations struggling to achieve sustainability simply cannot afford this.

The third step in your review of sexual harassment is to understand why the media industry is prime for predators. Of course, it’s not the only industry that experiences this. Some classic examples documented in an EEOC chart of risk factors are having “high value” employees, odd working hours and decentralized workplaces, tolerance of alcohol, short-term employees like interns and high-stress environments. Add in the importance of appearance in some areas of media, the fact that machismo and show-no-weakness mentalities are rewarded, and our historically homogenous workforce, and you’ve got situations ripe for harassment.

Storm recommends applying the lens of workplace safety to the issue. Now that you understand the danger zones, how can you protect your staff?

Get rid of a check-box mentality

Addressing sexual harassment is not just a legal requirement. Storm urges leaders to think about it as a moral obligation. It’s not enough to update policies, commission sexual harassment training and send a memo. Those are things you cross off a list. Real change comes from addressing the culture in newsrooms where sexual harassment is normalized or ignored.

Imagine a newsroom culture that is safer, healthier, happier, more productive, efficient and effective. It’s not an unattainable utopia. As a leader, you have the power to affect change in these areas.

As you think about sexual harassment as a cultural issue, you must also recognize the divisions that exist by intersecting identities: gender and generation. Older women in the workplace may have different ideas than younger women. Men and women may hold different definitions of the issue. Bringing the topic to the forefront can make these different groups feel threatened or uncomfortable. But it’s important that everyone is able to speak safely and that you start from a position that tries not to exacerbate the division. Often the media has itself been responsible for fuelling that divison, which detracts attention from the real issue.

Commit to zero tolerance, publicly and continually

Once you know where you are, commit to where you’re going: a culture where sexual harassment is never tolerated (even when it’s your money-makers). Here are Storm’s tips for announcing your zero-tolerance policy:

  • Communicate your policy — and its consequences — to everyone in your workplace, hopefully during a mandatory all-staff meeting.
  • Repeat yourself often. Make verbal announcements, send email memos, hang flyers of your policy and encourage all leaders to discuss during one-on-ones.
  • Make it clear that you aren’t interested in pitting people against each other. Acknowledge people will have different opinions about how to create a safer work environment and change culture — and that’s okay. You want to hear from everyone. Explain how you plan to get feedback as you go.

You don’t have to have all the answers at this point, but one thing you should think through is if your zero-tolerance policy is retroactive. What happens if your employee files a complaint about harassment that happened before you enacted the policy? Even in this case, we recommend zero tolerance.

Find advocates for change

Ask for feedback again and again in many ways — anonymous surveys, dedicated time slots to meet about the issue, one-on-one interviews — and encourage everyone you employ to participate.

People may hesitate or get busy. This is not an excuse to brush the issue to the side. Storm recommends thinking strategically and reaching out to two types of people who can help implement the cultural change you desire: ripplers and wavemakers.

First, find the ripplers. These are people who may be less prominent in your news organization, but potentially have experience with harassment themselves or have supported the harassed. They represent the cultural divisions mentioned above — older women, younger women and men, of all racial backgrounds. Get their feedback. Listen. Pause.

Second, recruit the wavemakers. These are the people in your newsroom who have social capital. These people talk, to you and to each other. Get their feedback. Listen. Pause.

Adjust your policy as necessary from this second information-gathering stage. Hold your commitments to prove to the ripplers and wavemakers and everyone else that you are serious about cultural change. Make it easy for people to advocate for your mission.

Be a good ally

One of the sincerest discussions during Storm’s presentation at Poynter’s women’s leadership academy was how to support someone who confides in you about being harassed. As you actively seek feedback on sexual harassment, you’re likely going to encounter this conversation.

If you’re a straight, middle-aged white male boss, frankly, you may not have the lens to completely understand what your employee is going through. Acknowledge that. Listen. Nod. Make eye contact. Don’t try to fix the situation in the first conversation.

If you’re anyone else, the same advice applies. Listen first, fix later. If you’re in a position where you could take action (i.e., fire the harasser), don’t talk about that yet. The first conversation is not the place, because the harassed person is vulnerable, potentially conflicted and cautious.

Ask questions instead. Assure them that you’re there for them, validate their experience, practice nonverbal listening and then set up another time to talk to them soon.

After that first conversation, work on fixing it if you can, with your zero-tolerance policy as your guide.

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Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She previously edited The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
Mel Grau

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