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#MeToo and the New (and Improved) Normal

By AICC Staff

July 30, 2018


Leah Ashford, certified professional coach, leads the discussion on male-female relationships in the workplace at AICC’s Emerging Leader gathering in April.

The popular culture has experienced a drastic change. The mighty have fallen off the casting couch. We’ve been shocked and betrayed by America’s favorite dad. Actors, comedians, clerics, political leaders, and anchormen have been exposed and dismissed for leveraging power for their own pleasure. It is disheartening to say the least. What do these trends have to do with a packaging business? We are certainly not playing by Hollywood rules, but are there lessons to be learned from these flamboyant offenders? AICC’s Emerging Leaders (ELs) sought to answer this question at their April gathering.

I was determined to provide a forum for candid dialogue on this subject, one of the most volatile that could be discussed. To accomplish this, I invited Leah Ashford, fellow certified professional coach, to spearhead the conversation. Now a full-time coach of professionals in transition, Ashford recently launched her practice after 20 years at E. & J. Gallo Winery. With this gentle and authoritative leader on point, the conversation was augmented by AICC attorney David Goch and me.

In the midst of the aforementioned revelation of so many open secrets, Ashford quickly described corporate policy guidelines, and Goch provided a legal perspective and comic relief. Our intention was to discover how all of us, female and male, could safely proceed in co-worker relationships with the rules in flux. One discussion question posed by Ashford had the group sharing openly, and it was evident that a few participants had broadened their perspective.

“Is what was considered acceptable before no longer acceptable behavior?” Ashford asks. “Perhaps it may never have been acceptable; there may have always been those that found the joke or the behavior unacceptable, and now they feel empowered to speak up.”

The crux of the discussion focused on what can be done by the people who set policy, as well as by those who just work in the ranks at their company. I’ll group my key takeaways into four categories: 1) be mindful of power; 2) be cautious and create opportunity; 3) advocate with respect; and 4) trust your intuition.

Be mindful of power. The impact that rank, influence on advancement, and authority over employment status have on relationships is subtle and pronounced. There are no conversations that are not affected by the relative power of the conversant. Regardless of gender, the boss must be mindful of the fact that in the workplace, people are motivated to agree, and sometimes even to suppress their own opinions or propriety. To me, being mindful of power means that I will not delude myself or others with the idea that power does not matter.

Be cautious and create opportunity. We discussed the unintended outcome that overcautious leaders incur. Vice President Mike Pence has said that it is his personal imperative never to meet with a woman alone in private or in public. The backlash for women in this scenario is that they do not have equal access to Pence for all the appropriate learning, persuading, and decision-

making that happen one-on-one. It is not my intention to judge Pence in this very public stance, but to point out that if it were the general rule, then women, and the workplace, would be negatively impacted. With the ELs, I offered that I do not conduct business in secluded locations alone with women. My mother would say that this is prudent in that it avoids the evil and the appearance of evil. I do, however, frequently meet with, counsel, receive counsel, mentor, and learn from women. I just take the precaution of doing so in more public spaces. Goch added that he holds the mental construct of conducting business as if his mother were in the room. These ideas reinforced that ELs should be cautious, respectful, and continue working for the advancement of all.

Advocate. Ashford guided the group through multiple scenarios, but one hypothetical scenario was a conundrum: After a meeting with a potential client, you are standing in a group with that company’s director, who tells an off-color joke that is demeaning to women. Two women from your company are standing in the group. How do you handle it?

Lively dialogue produced responses ranging from “I’d apologize privately to the women” and “I’d confront the potential client,” to “I would let the women speak for themselves as a validation of their equality.” My perspective could be swayed by an experience I had at the birth of women’s liberation in which a young woman was offended by my opening a door for her, at which point she slugged me. In our discussion with the ELs, however, it was argued that anyone who witnesses an inappropriate behavior should speak up with as much finesse as required.

We do not always stand up for people because they cannot do it alone, but because they should not have to.

Trust your intuition. Some people came away from the EL discussion having decided to stop overriding their intuitive knowledge when faced with uncomfortable pressure, expectations, or behavior. In his book The Gift of Fear, security expert Gavin de Becker said, “Intuition is always right in at least two important ways. It is always in response to something. It always has your best interest at heart.” When you find yourself in a compromised situation, it is likely that you ignored multiple internal alarms to get there. When we find ourselves a target or witness of such behavior, we owe it to ourselves and our co-workers to speak up.

To me, the most encouraging outcome of the discussion was the continued conversation at later gatherings during the week. Rather than seeing it solely as a Hollywood or Washington problem, there was realization that these are in play wherever people are involved.

I will be contributing one more article on this topic. The ELs returned to their companies with a final scenario presented by Ashford: Imagine you are founding a new company, where you plan to someday offer employment to your daughter and your younger son. What culture would you want them to work in? A place where women have an equal chance of moving up within the company? One where they know they wouldn’t be put down, patted on the head, or be subjected to sexual situations or harassment? How would you want to make that clear in your new organization?

The upcoming article will report the feedback I receive from the ELs, as well anything you would like to contribute. I am hoping the perspectives will be numerous and diverse. We can answer these questions and contribute to our current organizations’ new and improved normal.

width=150Scott Ellis, Ed.D., provides the brutal facts with a kind and actionable delivery when a leader, a team, or a company needs an objective, data-based assessment of the current state of operations and culture. Training, coaching, and resources develop the ability to eliminate obstacles and sustain more effective and profitable results. Working Well exists to get you unstuck and accelerate effective work. Scott can be reached at 425-985-8508 or