Not Sure How to Handle a Possible Harassment Issue? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine, 

I have been assigned to handle a new team and we are currently in the developmental stage.

Yesterday as I did a few one-on-one sessions, one of the new hires on my team (let’s call her Laura) mentioned that one of my tenured team members (let’s call her Carol) was cold to her.

Laura said the only interaction she has had with Carol was when Carol told her in person that she is not allowed to use a term of endearment when talking with another woman in the office. Both Carol and Laura are LGBT. Laura said she apologized to Carol by saying she was sorry if Carol thinks it was inappropriate for her to call another woman by an endearing term but Carol did not answer.

Although I have heard rumors that Carol is interested in the woman whom Laura called by an endearing term, I have advised Laura to not magnify the situation because it might be just her imagination, and to give Carol the benefit of the doubt. I also asked her to let me know immediately if Carol starts displaying harassing behavior. 

In the meantime, as a supervisor, I know I need to extinguish whatever ember is under the rug that might turn into fire. I have not yet spoken to Carol. She was part of my team before this, and we never discussed personal matters. I am scheduled to talk to her next week. Could you give me tips on how I can best nip this situation in the bud? Thank you so much. 

Need to Avoid a Fire

Dear Need to Avoid a Fire,

Welcome to management. Isn’t it fun? People are the wild card, every time. Their needs, their desires, their wants.

First, let’s eliminate the static. I think the LGBT issue is a red herring, as well as who may or may not be attracted to whom. Rumors are—well, rumors, and you can’t depend on them to be true. And even if you could, it really doesn’t matter. The key is for everyone to have clear rules for interacting regardless of orientation or interest.

As a manager, since this could blow up, it would be smart for you to keep a clear record of every single thing that comes to your attention as this drama unfolds. Hopefully it will stop before it gains any steam, but you have to cover yourself.

In terms of the bigger picture of forming a new team, I highly recommend that you do two things:

  • Share the laws of your state or country around what constitutes harassment. In California, harassment is essentially in the eye of the beholder. Based on this, you can share what is most relevant, such as:
    • Avoid any and all personal observations; i.e.: “you look so pretty in that skirt!” It is always safer to keep compliments impersonal; i.e.: “that skirt is great looking.”
    • Avoid terms of endearment under any circumstances.
    • Keep your hands to yourself at all times.
    • Keep humor clean and light and always be mindful of anyone you may be insulting.
  • Work with everyone on your team to come up with norms for the team that everyone can live with. Examples include:
    • We agree that we are on time
    • We treat each other with respect
    • We give each other direct feedback
    • We talk things through when there is conflict

Speaking with Carol is going to be critical. One thing to do is request that she have a heart-to-heart talk with Laura to accept the apology and move on. Creating the norm of having your team members give each other direct feedback and talk things through when there is conflict is ideal, if difficult to achieve.

Be kind, be firm, and stop paying attention to anything that doesn’t matter.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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