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Current Situation & Work Environment

I am a male engineering manager at a mid-size, mixed-discipline company in the U.S.. We have fewer than a handful of women in our engineering department and some departments have no women at all.

One of the engineers on my team is a woman who recently conveyed a concern that in situations in which another's behavior is inappropriate (wherever it is on the scale of uncomfortable, rude, offensive, or outright abusive), the only real outlet she has is to go to HR and file a report (or "just talk" but it's unclear what our HR representatives do with "just talks"). The other women in the department are on other projects and there aren't many in other disciplines whom our team interacts with on a regular basis.

Concerns to Address

After talking with her, she and I identified a couple of specific concerns with the current situation.

First, she doesn't have any way of knowing about potential coworkers/groups with predatory or misogynistic behavior in advance. If there were more women in the environment, she would be able to talk to them and hear their experiences on an individual level ("Person X is constantly trying to invite me to parties") and at the structural level ("this meeting group doesn't ever take my feedback seriously").

Second, if a more serious incident were to occur involving one of the women at the company, the others wouldn't have any awareness of it or ability to back up that woman's claims with their own experiences, increasing the chances that it would get swept under the rug.

What I'm Looking For in an Answer

Does anyone have any suggestions for addressing and/or solving these concerns? Obviously, telling her to "get to know your coworkers in other departments" is practical advice but not particularly helpful. Are there good solutions that others have used in solving similar problems? I've spoken to our HR department and naturally their stance is "come to us and talk about anything anytime!" which, similarly, is not particularly helpful (and I think there's an extremely valid concern that the more often you talk to HR about the smaller issues, the less likely you will be taken seriously if something very problematic does occur, regardless of how the world should work).

I am interested in solutions that I can implement as her manager, that she could implement herself, or that I could take to our HR department as a recommendation. They could be

  • interpersonal (e.g. advice to give her to form relationships with other women around this issue)
  • organizational (e.g. working with the women's resource group that we have to better address this issue)
  • technical (e.g. an anonymous reporting tool with some level of transparency that makes it better than a black box)

Thank you!

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    People aren't take seriously or have other issues in private life and at work for several reasons, including but not exclusively because they are women. Reading between the lines let me advise to not install all kind of preventive measures because "all men here are harassing". This would create a venemous environment faster than you might imagine. Especially on behalf of your female colleague please address problems when but not before they occur, address exactly what has happened and don't automatically add "because she is a woman and all men are harassing her".
    – puck
    Apr 13 at 6:40
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    You don't need to know which person is mysoginistic/predatory in advance. Just work normally and if some of them behave in a sexist way, avoid them. If you get harassed or bullied, HR is there for you. You don't need a network of "females" to know which "male" is bad. You'll know by experience. As long as you're keeping everything professional with people, you have nothing to fear. I'm a female in a primary male company, and I think she is overthinking it. You can't solve these issues in advance, you can't control everything. You'll just have to tell HR in case something happens.
    – Doliprane
    Apr 13 at 8:19
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    If she needed to have women in her department, she should have told you during the interview. You can't join a male-dominant job and expect to have female friends to chat with... You cannot hire more females in her department just so she can feel safe. I know you want to be helpful, but you have nothing you can help with. Tell her to relax and work normally, and to report right away if someone behaves badly towards her. That's how the system works. For both men and women. She shouldn't expect a different treatment just because she is a woman. HR is there for a reason.
    – Doliprane
    Apr 13 at 8:26
  • While I can't pretend to know what women go through, as a man, I do have eyes and ears, and it's not like other men make their intentions/personality type a huge secret. Personally, I can tell you who among us will get needy, jealous, aggressive, handsy, inappropriate when drunk, etc. Now, I may not be direct about it, but if the questions are phrased carefully enough, and if the person asking is willing to read between the lines of my answers, and if that person is willing to ask multiple men separately (that aren't trying to hit on her), then she will know exactly who to avoid. Apr 13 at 9:20
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    @puck I can definitively say that she and I discussed this concern at length and are not interested in anything that results in gossip or witch hunts. I'm confident that both she and I can understand that a reasonable and effective way to be proactive (and which does not have unwanted side effects) may not be possible. Is there something I should edit into my post to make this more clear? Apr 13 at 17:21
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First, she doesn't have any way of knowing about potential coworkers/groups with predatory or misogynistic behavior in advance. If there were more women in the environment, she would be able to talk to them and hear their experiences on an individual level ("Person X is constantly trying to invite me to parties") and at the structural level ("this meeting group doesn't ever take my feedback seriously").

There should not be some group of individuals who get together and discuss potential or real issues with specific individuals or teams. The HR team exists to deal with these issues. There should not be a brigade of women (and men) with pitchforks trying to dispense mob justice or spread gossip.

Industry support groups make sense, but they are not about identifying people or groups involved, but instead exist to address systematic issues. And these groups can span multiple companies, because they do not discuss specifics.

Second, if a more serious incident were to occur involving one of the women at the company, the others wouldn't have any awareness of it or ability to back up that woman's claims with their own experiences, increasing the chances that it would get swept under the rug.

If people have issues with individuals or groups, they should speak to the HR team about it. That's what they are there for.

If there is a belief there are subtile patterns of behaviour, again, this is something for HR to investigate.

Once again, there should not be broadcasts of HR investigations to groups of people within the company. It undermines the HR process, and leaves the company open to litigation.

Things like anonymous surveys (open to all employees) help ensure there are no culture problems at the company. There are external organisations that can run this properly.

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  • There should be, and probably are a set of company policies where this is described in detail. Apr 13 at 4:54
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    This is how HR operates at a good, ethical company. But whisper networks exist because not all employers are good and ethical, and HR is not necessarily the employee's friend. (I've worked at one place where the boss was harassing and bullying staff, and his son was the head of HR...) Apr 13 at 6:29
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    @GeoffreyBrent That may be so. But in the absence of any information that HR is not behaving correctly, my advice would be to let HR deal with things. Apr 13 at 7:17
  • @GregoryCurrie How would you modify this answer if HR is not behaving correctly? I have heard claims from former employees that they made multiple reports with HR which were never addressed. I fortunately have never had to report anything to HR (at this company or any other in my career), but the general conceit of "tell us problems and we'll deal with it and not really report back" raises a lot of concerns for me. Perhaps there's enough for a separate question there. Apr 13 at 16:28
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    @FriendlyTumbleweed And if an employee, female or otherwise, decided to go out on a limb and start spreading information about other employees, the company would probably have grounds to fire them on the spot. Sometimes as a leader you job is to educate employees about proper processes, and not simply give them what they want, no matter how noble your intentions. Apr 13 at 17:06
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The only real outlet she has is to go to HR and file a report

Well, not quite. In most situations, the first thing to do is to talk to that person (or group). Just tell them that you find this or that inappropriate, rude or whatever the situation might be. Ideally right away, but maybe soon after in private.

Most of the time, that will be enough. If not on good will, then on everyone's knowledge that there is a plan B.

And this plan B is, of course, your HR. (Perhaps via you as an immediate supervisor). This is what they are for. You simply need to reassure her (and every employee) that HR is there to help, and she can always defer to them. She can go and "just talk", and if the situation warrants it, they will advise to file a formal report. (I hope it is organised like that in your company). Alternatively, tell her to come to you first when in doubt, at least initially, and you together will decide whether it's worth involving HR.

What I'm trying to say is that you shouldn't "proactively deal with inappropriate behavior", other than establishing a working framework to deal with it when it happens (i.e. good HR), and making sure everyone is aware of it. The worst thing you can do is "proactively" suspect all men (or anyone for that matter) to be "perpetrators" and try to "do" something about it. This is what creates "toxic environment", where everyone walks on a minefield.

Have faith in people (esp. your colleagues) and give them the benefit of the doubt, but have a safety net to fall back to.

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First of all, congratulations on being assertive and proactive on this issue. Showing concern for your employees' comfort and wellbeing is important. If you look at my most recent question from last week, I was in an almost mirror situation as you.

The internal employees support group is a great start. Often having peers and management recognize such issue is the first step and a peer group could provide her the support she needs. Sometimes, employees may not feel safe in reporting abusive and harassing conduct because they do not have organizational support. However, these peer groups should not be used as a substitute for formal management / HR intervention if the offensive conduct is indeed serious and violates company policy. Colleagues without supervisory responsibilities should not feel as if they have to personally solve the problem, but acknowledging such problem, and being supportive is still very good.

Making management of the other members who are making such remarks aware is also very helpful. It shows you as being assertive and not afraid to "dodge" an uncomfortable problem. You, as a manger, have a duty to look out for your employees welfare and management on the other side have a duty to stop unprofessional behavior. A clear communication strategy from management or HR in these circumstances is also a tool on it's own accord and a powerful one, due to offenders knowing that management cares, rather than pushing incidents under the table.

To take away from peers focus of she being solely a woman employee, having a clear company wide expectation / policy that prohibits harassment and / or behavior intended to demean or intimidate others is a great step if not already in place. However, you want to avoid the problem being framed as inappropriate because she is a woman, but because abusive / harassing conduct is objectively unbecoming , no matter who the parties are or whether conduct is targeted towards them. Any derogatory comments , whether based on race, gender, ethnicity or other personal characteristics outside of one's control etc, are inappropriate in a professional workplace. For example, if a Hispanic person was called a spic or Chinese chink, you are well with your rights to object even if not a member if those groups.

Another solution our company recently implemented was a ethics hotline that provides the option for anonymity of the reporter. If this can be run by a external vendor, so much the better due to independence from company management.

Finally one thing you can do is to document each incident as your coworker relates them to you. Having a tangible trail of the inappropriate conduct helps you in case the offender were yo contest / deny such conduct ever took place.

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  • I think this is one of the best answers here. The only thing I would add is the obvious, hiring more female technical staff within your company. Apr 17 at 0:04

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