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A Safe Workplace Starts with You

Originally published
Originally published: 3/1/2018

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes was certainly powerful. It highlighted the current events and activities over the last few months regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo movement has caught the attention of millions of Americans as more and more women discuss their past encounters with superiors taking advantage of their position of power.

The exposure has been the greatest on the media and government industries, but as a leader of thousands of people over a 34-year career at GE Aviation in manufacturing and engineering, I am no stranger to it.

It’s long overdue that all industries and businesses recognized the issue. Sexual harassment, workplace violence and hostile work environments are not acceptable. They are wrong, they promote behavior that is unacceptable and they destroy morale and teamwork.

As I progressed through my career with increasing responsibility, I dealt with this challenge every day. Sexual harassment/hostile workplace starts with you; no matter what your position or level in the organization.

Obviously, the further and higher you go, the more responsibilities, thus the ability to influence these practices and policies is greater.

How is your Company’s Climate?

Do you have a robust sexual harassment policy? Do you and your managers buy-in? When was the last time you and your staff had training? Is it time to refresh?

The C-Suite is a major contributor to the atmosphere and culture; they set the tone for these behaviors. Executive leaders must walk the walk; their everyday actions must reflect these policies.

You need to make it a priority, a minimum expectation for everyone. You can’t wink or look sideways on sexual harassment/hostile workplace. Bold, decisive actions are required. It needs to be part of you company’s DNA.

It Starts with You

I started as a front line supervisor in a jet engine factory in 1979. Men dominated the workforce. Rarely did you see a woman in what was described as a traditional machinist role. The supervisors, the engineers the management leaders were all men.

So my exposure to women in the workplace was limited. As expected, women fielded many of the clerical and administrative assistant positions. Heck, we didn’t have but one ladies’ bathroom in the whole factory. That was life as I saw it.

Early in my career, these behaviors were commonplace: “cat calls” when a woman would walk through the manufacturing shop, posters of “Playboy-type photos” hanging in toolboxes and language and jokes that went beyond the “locker room” talk. This was reality and there were times when it made me feel uncomfortable.

I also witness strong-arming, threatening behavior some physical in nature by both management and labor groups. The entire atmosphere of the workplace was tense; early in my career I had a boss who could have been a poster boy for “How to intimidate your workers.”

I did react to these things. I am no saint when it comes to language, however, I thought it appropriate to temper language when conducting business meetings. It started with me. I set the example; it was something I continued throughout my career.

Over time the pictures and posters became something that didn’t fit into an inclusive, embracing and non-threatening environment. Later in my career, with everyone having access to laptops, we had folks who frequently searched the Internet visiting pornography sites.

We dealt with these people quickly and swiftly. Zero Tolerance. These actions may seem small, but small things add up. It starts with you.

Progress and Education

As the years progressed and more women join the workforce as technicians, machinist, engineers and supervisors, we needed to change. We initiated training and formal educational programs to understand these new dynamics in the manufacturing shop.

This transition started around the mid to late 1990s. Much of the training focused around the workplace and its environment. We took a broader look and educated folks on behaviors that allowed all people to feel comfortable and accepted in the business.

During this time, I had a female employee come to me regarding someone in my organization who was sexually harassing her. This was a new one for me and at first I had my doubts this was occurring.

I held some of the old thoughts that men will be men and boys will be boys. I may have jumped to conclusions prematurely. I did investigate, however, and it was proven — and we did fire the offender.

Good leaders must listen to their employees, keep their door open and follow up on concerns. Once employees don’t feel comfortable coming to you with issues, you’ve lost their confidence. This event sent a strong message throughout the organization. It starts with you.

Make Your Team Comfortable

Don’t be an enabler. Think of the Matt Lauer case where a worker placed a button on his desk to lock his office door. Doesn’t this sound strange. The person who installed this lock didn’t they think it was out of sorts?

I know its tough to speak up and report especially when the star player is involved. Provide a mechanism for employees to report these concerns that protects their identity. Keep the communications open. Be transparent with your team. Make it comfortable for people to report. It starts with you.

Leaders share values. I credit my father with teaching me and showing me through his daily actions. He shared his values about marriage, women and treating all people with respect. Great leaders and good companies know how to do this — it’s time for you and your team to step up and make a renewed commitment to yourself, your team and your company. Remember, it starts with you.


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