The pandemic has been pretty good to the tech industry and its employees. Currently, most of the tech companies I cover have discovered they can now better compete globally for people by allowing them to live where they want and work remotely. Technology has become the big driver for this remote work effort, pushing applications aggressively into the cloud, resulting in some of the strongest financial results this quarter than we have seen in ten years.
However, I’m disturbed by stories that indicate that we’ve started to lapse in other places, including a slip in protections against misogyny in the workplace. This week one of my friends in PR shared a story on Facebook about a meeting she’d had with two top executives that I know. One allegedly said, “Most engineers think PR reps are one step above call girls.” The other allegedly replied, “Isn’t it PR that hires call girls?”
Every HR person that reads this is likely turning a bit white, mainly because this exchange happened at a large tech company where the executives should know better. And, where such sexist remarks should trigger action from Human Resources; zero tolerance policies should lead to termination.
Time to Reinvigorate Harassment Policies
If you are like me, you have likely seen an increase in inappropriate comments as people come back to work. Many of us have been isolated and working via video conferencing for well over a year. We have been hanging around with family and friends who likely have far more tolerance for off-color commentary than our coworkers will ever, or should ever, have.
We’ve picked up some bad habits, and those bad habits, at scale, could result in a relatively large amount of hostile workplace litigation. We need to get ahead of this problem and remind our executives and employees that the rules against racist and sexist comments weren’t suspended during the pandemic and remain in force.
One of my first experiences with how bad things can get when employees don’t remember these rules was years ago in IBM. In our call center, one of the women yelled out, “How do I get a raise in this damn place?” Her manager responded that she’d need to sleep with him. Neither seemed offended by the exchange. However, two female sales reps who were in the room were offended and the manager was shipped to another site. It was a tight knit group that had the best stats in the company before this happened. This group essentially disbanded after the event, which impacted revenue, customers loyalty, and employee satisfaction.
If this behavior isn’t corrected, there will be other departments, careers, and opportunities tragically lost because some employees believe the rules do not apply to them.
The Potential Fall Out of Bad Behavior
The rise of social media also means that inappropriate workplace behavior no longer stays within the company. If the firm’s brand is connected to this behavior, you can have boycotts, lose government contracts, find it harder to hire qualified people (mainly women), and end up with troubling conversations with loved ones who feel the need to set you straight. This also puts HR on notice of a problem, embarrasses the investors and employees of a company, and can certainly badly damage the firm’s brand image.
The latest public employee action at Activision Blizzard may be the canary in a coal mine of things to come. Bad behavior seems widespread and needs to be dealt with, or more companies will suffer material damage.
Working from home has given us freedoms many of us haven’t had since we were in college, but it has also resulted in people who should know better behaving in objectionable ways. To prevent the damage that is likely to result, companies need to prioritize harassment and diversity training as well as reassert the rules surrounding unacceptable behavior.
There are undoubtedly many folks who think they can’t be fired because they are irreplaceable, and, ironically, they may be right about everything but the “can’t” part. It is time to remind them that no one’s job is safe when it comes to abusive behavior and that there are far better ways to retire than forgetting that and telling a joke you’ll regret.