The lesson of the Leigh Sales incident for men: stick to handshakes and you can’t go wrong

ABC presenter Leigh Sales has sparked a media firestorm following her very public expression of revulsion at being kissed on the lips by businessman Phil Newman when he introduced her at a charity ball she was hosting. Sales’ disquiet will be familiar to thousands of women who face unwanted kisses as part of their everyday working lives.

To recap briefly, Newman, having offered his cheek for Sales to peck then turned his head suddenly and planted an unwelcome kiss on her lips. Sales, clearly affronted, according to an account in Guardian Australia, had the presence of mind to make her objection known by declaring “hashtag me too” into her microphone before with admirable aplomb resuming her MC duties at the black tie dinner.

“The only reason I am commenting publicly is that given how many people witnessed the incident, I feel it would be gutless not to stand up and say that kind of behaviour is intolerable and the time for women being subject to it or having to tolerate it is long gone,” she later told Guardian Australia.

“I was offended and angered by the incident on Saturday night. I had strong words to the man involved, he apologised and I accepted that apology. That should be the end of it as far as I’m concerned.”

While it can be safely imagined that Newman is mortified by the experience, the incident is typical of that disturbing brand of male humour that considers the breach of a woman’s dignity to be a harmless jape, thus nullifying the sexual overtones that necessarily underpin the “joke”.

The deception behind Newman’s stolen kiss, and the violation itself, all in full view of 200 people, illustrate the unfair and unacceptable standards of behaviour that women must navigate daily. Choosing Sales for his gambit was just the first of Newman’s miscalculations, but imagine the same scenario with a younger, less confident, less powerful woman in Sales’ place.

Newman’s public humiliation ultimately occurred because it remains the fashion for men to greet women with a peck on the cheek. The lesson for men to be taken from Newman’s faux pas is not to stick to the cheek, but to do away with the peck altogether.

Hazards of the pecking order

Women in the workplace and other professional settings may not have to endure lip-on-lip contact but for most the peck on the cheek is equally something to be endured. They know that one of the hazards of success is being on the receiving end of the power kiss. The higher up the pecking order, the more likely the unwanted pecks.

Imagine being a businesswoman or woman of station about to enter a room in the knowledge that what awaits is a gaggle of men queuing to pucker up in greeting.

This is an issue I first canvassed in a column for the Australian Financial Review in 2011:

“To kiss or not to kiss? That is the question in these fraught times of gender do’s and don’ts. Business etiquette has, by and large, kept pace with shifting norms of behaviour that reflect greater equality between the sexes in workplaces and the corridors of power. But the issue of when, if at all, to greet a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek is unresolved.”

The response I received at the time was that most women don’t like being kissed at business or professional gatherings.

Who can blame them? Every time a woman walks into a crowded room, big boofy blokes will circle to plant a kiss on the cheek. The inevitable slobberthon can’t be pleasant for women.

As the Leigh Sales incident makes clear, many men are still programmed to pucker up the instant a member of the opposite sex enters their midst. For these men, the social distinction is clear: you shake hands with a man, you kiss a woman on the cheek.

Women who don’t like being kissed leave no room for doubt. At gatherings their hands shoot out before anyone has a chance to invade their face. But some women favour the kiss as an appropriate greeting, or at the very least are prepared, reluctantly, to let an outdated practice through to the keeper. And so the custom endures.

Business etiquette, which is generally attentive to changing norms of behaviour in the workplace, seems to have bypassed the power peck. The propriety of greeting a female associate or peer with a kiss on the cheek remains a grey area. (And don’t get me started on the hug – when did that start?)

Grey areas aren’t helpful when it comes to stomping out undesirable behaviour. Many men work on the assumption that a grey area is as good as a green light when it comes to zeroing in on a female colleague’s cheek.

Women are entitled to be free of manhandling. It would be better for all if clear rules of engagement were established once and for all. The rule can be expressed in one word: don’t.

The Queen has the right idea. When she’s on the job there’s no touching and no kissing. Flowers are optional.

The bottom line should be this: if it’s business, keep your lips to yourself.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

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Most workplaces have a Harvey Weinstein: why are employers so bad at dealing with sexual harassment?

Revelations by the New York Times about the predatory sexual behaviour of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have made for jaw-dropping reading. The newspaper chronicled allegations against Weinstein from actresses and former employees at The Weinstein Company and the producer’s former company, Miramax.

According to the NYT, Weinstein reached settlements with at least eight women.

While some may view this rolling story as just another “celebrity scandal”, it is so much more. This is a story that many women far removed from the bright lights of Hollywood will understand from bitter experience. It is a story about the workplace and the fact that women at their place of work are daily confronted with sexual intimidation.

Weinstein’s modus operandi was refined over decades: he invited female employees to his hotel room for business purposes, whereupon he would greet them in the nude or ask them to massage him or watch him take a shower.

The dynamic at play will be familiar to many women: powerful men in a position to advance careers, extend patronage or dispense favours making sexual demands of young women who are at their most vulnerable as they seek to build a career.

Many young professional women have had to fend off a Harvey Weinstein early in their careers.

Why are women in 2017 still being subjected to this predatory behaviour in the workplace? At the root of the problem is how some men relate to women. These men have an unblushing sense of entitlement, a demarcation of gender roles and an overblown sense of their attraction to women.

Despite much greater awareness surrounding sexual harassment, in many organisations that awareness is not being translated into more respectful workplaces. Sexual harassment often occurs in organisations with elaborate policies, manuals and procedures purportedly designed such behaviour.

Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is often trivialised as women who can’t take a joke, women as man-haters and the old faithful, political correctness gone mad.

The joke when it comes to sexual harassment is what passes for many companies’ policies and procedures. While it can be argued that some action on sexual harassment is better than nothing, the counter argument is that a pro-forma tick-the-box approach might give a false impression of a safe and respectful workplace while allowing a toxic culture to flourish.

HR is never the answer

Not only are these companies failing to stamp out this behaviour, but when called on to respond to complaints by female employees they fail miserably.

There are, of course, notable exceptions that are well documented and rightly celebrated, but we have seen enough media reports of companies that act with hamfisted disregard for the rights and wellbeing of their female staff to know that sexual harassment at work remains a serious problem.

When it comes to sexual harassment, Human Resources is not the answer. HR is never the answer. HR departments have a clear conflict of interest and their loyalties are clear. When an aggrieved female employee takes her complaint of sexual harassment to HR, the HR manager’s “client” becomes not the employee but the company’s CEO. And the CEO’s first question is usually: “How do we make this go away?” Or better still, “How do we make her go away.”

The impotence of HR was an issue identified in the NYT story: “The human resources operation was considered weak…so some employees banded together in solidarity. ‘If a female executive was asked to go to a meeting solo, she and a colleague would generally double up’ so as not to be alone with Mr Weinstein, recalled [a Miramax executive].”

In the past I have been critical of the “industry” which had sprung up to help companies deal with sexual harassment in their workplaces. This motley band of consultants, trainers and workshop facilitators enable companies to tick the right boxes without making any impact on dysfunctional workplace cultures.

So what can companies do to better understand sexual harassment and more effectively deal with complaints when they arise?

1 Putting a face to sexual harassment

A couple of years ago I was a guest on the SBS current affairs television program Insight which was canvassing the issue of sexual harassment. The most instructive aspect of the program was a panel of women who recounted their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. Their stories were harrowing. Companies would do well to source such panels of women to share their experiences with senior management and boards. Many men simply do not understand what sexual harassment means. When male leaders understand the extent of indignities, humiliations and even violence that some women are forced to endure in the workplace they may get serious about changing behaviours in their workplaces.

2 Make sexual harassment a board matter

Eradicating sexual harassment must become a board priority. It is in the board’s interest to consider sexual harassment unacceptable in human terms and governance terms. Boards should be satisfied that its executive leadership team is delivering a workplace in which everyone feels valued, safe and productive. Boards should mandate their CEO – not the head of HR – to report to the board on gender, diversity and inclusion to agreed metrics. Those metrics should be linked to remuneration frameworks. Boards should be informed of sexual harassment complaints as they arise as a matter of course.

3 Ensuring a whole-of-company commitment

Companies that rely on off-the-shelf training modules, mind-numbing workshops and flashy consultants will change neither attitudes nor prevailing cultures. And while HR can come up with “best-practice” policies and processes these mean nothing unless there is a whole-of-company commitment to providing a safe and welcoming workplace. Companies should be prepared to invest in an independent audit of the organisation to test the robustness of sexual harassment, gender equity and diversity policies and the cultural environment in which those policies operate. This needs to be a high-level undertaking with the commitment to make the necessary changes to tackle sexual harassment and corrosive cultures head on. Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, now principal of Elizabeth Broderick & Co, conducts such reviews: that’s the calibre of person needed.

4 A better approach to dispute resolution

Disputes between female complainants and their employers escalate because of inadequate mechanisms for hearing, assessing and resolving complaints. Whatever their formal policies might state, companies too often treat sexual harassment as a matter for damage control. Treating the victim as “the enemy” or even quietly making a settlement means nothing changes and toxic cultures are allowed to fester. If existing systems are proving inadequate companies need to get creative – and be prepared to make the necessary investment – to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of dispute resolution processes. One course may be to immediately call in external advisers to take charge of the process whenever a complaint is received. Another is to establish permanent external panels of qualified persons to directly receive and adjudicate on complaints of sexual harassment. The key word in both examples is: external.

5 Making women visible

It’s a message that many men fail to grasp: workplaces are, for historical and cultural reasons, essentially male-dominated domains. Even when there seem to be plenty of women in an organisation masculinist business cultures predominate, women in leadership are inadequately represented and inequities such as the gender pay gap set the tone of workplaces. Sexual harassment reflects a certain view of women. A workplace in which men and women are seen to be on an equal footing will change workplace dynamics for the better.

As for Harvey Weinstein: he’s toast. More allegations about his behaviour as a bully and sexual predator have surfaced; his wife has left him; and The Weinstein Company board has dismissed the disgraced producer from the company he co-founded.

For his part, Weinstein has said in an interview that he is “terribly embarrassed” and is seeing a therapist.

 I am going to fix myself, I am going to fix how I deal with women and how I deal with my temper and power. I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with Weinstein’s therapist.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter: @DAngeloFisher