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On Harassment

by David Brock on December 10th, 2017

For the last couple of months, as more and more cases of harassment are publicized (and we are only seeing a small fraction of a percent of the cases), all of us have to step back and think of what we may have done–or not done with the inappropriate exploitation of power and demeaning of human beings.

It’s caused me to pause and reflect, did I ever do anything purposefully or accidentally to cause harm to a woman or anyone else?

The physical attacks and abuse were easy to discount.  They have always been unimaginable and unthinkable.  I wasn’t raised that way and have never been around people who were raised that way.

I thought about the “locker room humor,” I’ve never hung around in locker rooms much so I can’t think of a whole lot.  I was always introverted and a science nerd, so I never joined frats (unless you consider the honor society a frat–it did have a Greek name), so other than what I saw in movies, I don’t know what happened there, or was influenced by them.

Early in my career I had a harassment claim filed against me.  I was stunned and shocked, I couldn’t imagine what I had possibly done.  As it turned out, it was in a meeting.  A woman had thought another woman was being harassed by one of the men in the meeting.  As the senior manager and host of the meeting, the woman who filed the complaint thought I should have taken action.  After the investigation, we found it had been a huge misunderstanding.  What the woman thought she had heard and the treatment she thought she observed didn’t happen.  Everyone was a little embarrassed, apologies made all around.

However, it was an important lesson for me. While we may not be guilty of harassment, we can be guilty of complicity through inaction.

Within the last couple of months, something else happened, which was my fault.  I made a couple of off-color or risqué comments in a meeting.  Everyone laughed except for one woman.  She had a horrified look on her face, I was immediately devastated, recognizing what I had done and how I had offended her.  I caught up with her afterwards and apologized.  She was very gracious in accepting it and we had a fascinating conversation about what I had said.

While it was intended for a laugh, my comment was inappropriate in any audience and a huge mistake on my part.  I thank her for helping me relearn what I already knew.  No off-color humor is appropriate in any audience or conversation.

We (including me) have become increasingly accepting of foul language in meetings and interactions.  Is that appropriate, is it even necessary?

As we read more tragic stories and see things in our own workplaces,  the thing I worry about most is whether I’ve been complicit through inaction.  Whether I’ve observed others harassing or abusing women and not taken action.

There hasn’t been much discussion of this in the press.  I guess the sordid stories of attacks, groping and verbal abuse are titillating and shocking enough.  But I think far too many of us may be guilty of not taking action when we see others being harassed or treated in an abusive manner.

I’ve wracked my brain, wondering, “Have I stood silent or remained passive, when I should have said something or taken action?”

I search back through my career.  Have I been in a meeting where those inappropriate conversations in groups–whether just hanging out, at an event, or something else?  Were there women in those conversations that were threatened or uncomfortable, did I fail them and myself by failing to ask the speaker to stop?

A few years ago, I was aware of a group of women colleagues being harassed quite severely.  We talked about the situation, I asked if I should intervene, they declined, wanting to just move past and away from the situation.  But the individual who provoked the situation was quite an important influencer in my world.  There was a potential to leverage that relationship to build my business.

I’ve chosen to not be involved with, or engage that individual since that incident.  Nothing is more important than being true to my values and beliefs

There have been a couple of incidents like that in the past few years, I haven’t take action, but only at the request of those being harassed.  But I have eliminated the abusers from my life–and my life is the better for it.  No business relationship is ever worth living with the idea that these people have maliciously hurt and damaged colleagues, and have done that purposefully.

While sexual harassment must stay the center of our focus, and cannot be tolerated in any form; we have to also be attentive to all types of abuses of power.  We see too many in real or imagined positions of power demeaning women and others in less powerful positions.

Whether it is shouting, abusive language/treatment, intolerance, insensitivity, narcissism; we see inappropriate behaviors too frequently, primarily from male executives.

We know it’s not only not right, but it doesn’t produce results.

Unfortunately, the focus on this issues will be on the big stories and famous/very powerful people.  But harassment and abuses of power impact far more people than we will ever know.

We have so much to learn, we have so much bad behavior to correct and eliminate.  Each of us is touched by it in some way and none of us can ignore it.

While we may not be guilty of harassment, we cannot be guilty of complicity through inaction.


  1. Dave, thank you for your honest words on such a controversial topic. Complicity is one of the many ways I’ve climbed the ladder in the tech world. In the conversations of harassment, recent thoughts around what I’ve allowed and haven’t. For the comments, I let slide what precedent did I set?

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment Stacey. While the “big” harassment issues are criminal and cannot be ignored, much of the real story is being missed in each of our behaviors and what we allow/don’t allow, or choose to ignore. It’s really an important discussion. Really appreciate your courage in contributing.

  2. Thanks for bringing up this topic, Dave. As a long-time advocate for women in sales, I’ve seen and experienced enough incidents to know that most people are well-intentioned, but clueless as to the impact of their words/actions on others.

    However, the few who aren’t need to be stopped. We need to speak about their behaviors when they occur, not hide them or say, “boys will be boys.”

    I just read a fascinating NYT’s article that gives great suggestions on how we can best handle harassment issues when we observe them. Here’s the link:

    Sexual Harassment Training Doesn’t Work. But Some Things Do

    • Jill, thanks so much for contributing to the discussion. Thanks also for the reference to the NYT article.

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