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More Than a Policy – What Dealing with Workplace Harassment Looks Like

Atomic does a great job of cultivating a healthy work environment within our own building. We’ve got strong core values, great people, and high expectations for kindness, respect, and community. We don’t often need to exercise our policies around harassment, workplace sexism, or other forms of mistreatment.

However, despite our best efforts to find collaborators who fit our culture well, we don’t always have full knowledge or control over the people we’ll be working with.

So, what do we do when something does go wrong?

Here’s What Happened

A few months ago, my team was collaborating with several individuals outside of Atomic on a multi-day workshop series. One person seemed to be acutely aware of my dissimilarity from the rest of the mostly male group. This person found opportunities to point out my gender whenever possible, and over those few days, we had a series of strange interactions that were making me feel increasingly uneasy, culminating in a wildly inappropriate comment on my body being “distracting” in the middle of a meeting.

Thankfully, we’ve been making great strides with regard to gender equality in the workplace, so I didn’t need to explain what was so terribly wrong about this comment. However, here are a few of the feelings I had in that moment and afterwards:

  • I was incredibly uncomfortable with the knowledge that this person had been looking at me in this way.
  • I was furious and embarrassed that I had been told, in front of a group of colleagues, that my work was less important than my appearance.
  • I was concerned that this would disrupt my relationship with my team by reminding them of our differences and drawing attention to my body.
  • In the pit of my stomach, I was afraid that it was, in fact, my fault for dressing or moving a certain way–that I hadn’t tried hard enough not to be a “distraction.”

Here’s How We Handled It

What I did

I mentioned earlier that this person had been making me feel uneasy already. This brings me to the first, and I’d say, most important steps I took to make things after this point much easier:

  • Trust your intuition and enlist backup, just in case. I mentioned the situation to a few trusted people as soon as I started feeling uncomfortable, which meant that when something more severe did happen, I already knew I had allies in the room.
  • Be careful not to downplay the severity of the situation. It’s hard not to say, “It’s okay,” or, “It’s not a big deal,” because it’s a reflex to do so. Refusing to excuse this behavior meant that necessary changes were made to ensure it didn’t happen again.

So, once I had taken a deep breath, I did something that I’ve wanted to do every single time I’ve ever been catcalled, disrespected, or otherwise mistreated as a woman: I managed to work up the nerve to say something. I tried to keep it as neutral and as professional as possible:

“That isn’t an appropriate thing to say to a colleague. It isn’t my responsibility to not be distracting for you.”

Then, I left the room and took a walk around the block to cool down. Responding this way was scary and difficult, because, particularly for women, there’s an expectation that we try to save face whenever possible, and not rock the boat or escalate the situation. Here’s what made the difference between this and every other time I wasn’t able to respond to an inappropriate comment:

  • Have a plan. Sadly, having experienced this before meant I had a, “Next time, I’ll say this” statement ready. In the moment, adrenaline makes it tough to remain composed, and not having to think about your response helps a lot.
  • Know where your coworkers and company stand. Prior to joining Atomic, I was looking out for company values that fostered a healthy environment for women. Since starting, I had seen those values lived out on the daily at AO. Our culture is strong and clear about our expectations for respect and support for one another.
  • Know that it isn’t your fault, and you don’t need to accept any excuses or apologies. This person tried to disguise their [inappropriate gaze/assertion of social power/blatant lack of respect] by framing it as a “tip,” and then backpedaled by claiming that they didn’t mean to offend. I’m not interested in giving them the benefit of the doubt or taking on the burden of absolving any guilt for them. I’m also not planning on making any changes to my behavior to accommodate others’ immaturity.  I present myself and interact with others professionally, and I will continue to expect the same of my colleagues.

I want to note, though, that the situation isn’t always optimal for the response that every woman is entitled to give when faced with this sort of behavior. A few places where I lucked out:

  • I wasn’t alone, so I didn’t need to wonder if anyone would believe my story.
  • The person in question was a peer, not a superior, so there was less professional risk in standing up for myself than there might have been.
  • It wasn’t an overtly hostile interaction, and at no point was my personal safety in question.

What my allies did

In the days following, I received a great deal of support from the people around me, which made working through the emotional fallout much easier. A couple of examples of things that helped:

  • If you’re in a position to report an incident, do so. Another visitor to Atomic immediately apologized on behalf of his organization and reported the incident, saving me (and Atomic) from having to handle that delicate initial interaction. Doing this demonstrated a high level of integrity on his part and reaffirmed my confidence in the rest of his organization.
  • When someone enlists you as backup (see above), look out for them. My team’s delivery lead was one of the people that I enlisted, and he checked in with me frequently during and after the week’s events. He made a point to let me know that he took it seriously and would keep an eye out for me, even when I was just going off of intuition. When that intuition did prove itself right, he shared the pain by handling damage control on the Atomic side. By the time I had returned from my walk around the block, he’d already brought the matter to our managing partners and made arrangements to see that I wouldn’t need to have any more uncomfortable interactions that day. His actions took a great deal of the initial stress off of my back.
  • As another woman, be there to listen, empathize, and validate one another’s feelings. I had lunch in a closed conference room with several of Atomic’s female employees, which gave me the opportunity to express some of the heavy emotions I had afterwards. Women from all parts of the Atomic family reached out to express support and to acknowledge the nerve it had taken to handle the situation.
  • As a male colleague, listen and learn, and be aware of when your input is and isn’t necessary. If you aren’t sure, ask! One of my teammates, who hadn’t said much about the event, pulled me aside the next day and said something that I found incredibly thoughtful (which I’ve paraphrased):

    “I want you to know that I haven’t had much to say, not because I don’t care, but because I don’t have anything to add to what’s been said and you’ve got more important things to say about it than I do. Let me know if you do need anything.”

    My delivery lead also did an excellent job of this: In the conference room, he didn’t speak over me, but he did come over and physically stand beside me when he heard things get tense. It made me feel supported, but still in control of the situation.

What our leaders did

The rest of the day after I walked out of that conference room was something of a whirlwind. Because the person was from another organization, AO’s leaders needed to manage the situation and our relationship with the organization carefully. Some things that our managing partners and other leaders did:

  • Express support as quickly as possible. I didn’t have to sit and wonder if AO was happy with the way I responded, or if I was in trouble for damaging our relationship with the organization; our managing partners pulled me aside almost immediately to tell me that they were proud of how I had conducted myself and that they were taking the situation seriously.
  • Offer space, respect, and kindness. The next couple of days were filled with heavy conversations and carefully-conducted meetings both at AO and at the other organization. It was taxing, mentally and emotionally, but my exhaustion and distracted-ness were met with kindness and the understanding that life gets messy sometimes.
  • Be ready to make organizational adjustments if necessary. Atomic also let me know that they were more than willing to make team changes to keep me from having to interact with this person again. Our business model is especially well-suited for quick staffing changes, and, in more severe cases, we have broken off relationships with organizations.
  • Take the opportunity to learn what your organization can do to prevent and mitigate these situations when they arise. Most of my conversations with our managing partners were focused on what factors made the situation easier to handle and how we could improve them in the future.
  • Find opportunities for mentorship. One of our leaders reached out to me to share some of her experiences and history as the first woman Atom. It was encouraging to know that things have been on an upward trend, and that I have role models and mentors to look to when things do get tough.
  • Take responsibility. I’ve focused mostly on Atomic’s actions for this post, but I’d like to acknowledge that the situation was handled very well on both sides. The other organization’s leadership got in touch with me immediately to apologize for this person’s behavior and to assure me that they were taking action to see that it wouldn’t happen again. They kept a line of communication open with Atomic to ensure that the situation got resolved to our satisfaction and that I would be comfortable continuing to work with them.

Final Thoughts, a Few Months Later

In closing, I’m proud of my fellow Atoms, of our organization, and of myself. I’m thankful that we’ve come far enough as an industry for those involved to have been able to respond the way they did, and I hope that their actions can be taken as an example. For every time I’d tried to “just brush it off,” and for all of the times I’d kept quiet for fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, it was an incredible relief to have the people around me step up and share the pain of combating workplace sexism in our home.

I want to put this experience out into the world as a positive story: that women can speak up, that allies can make a difference, that organizations can protect their members, and that our industry as a whole will be much better off for it.