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How to effectively talk to men about bad behavior in the workplace

“The bottom line is that the men who we believe have the right intentions still need our explicit guidance around what is and what is not appropriate,” says Joan Kuhl, gender strategist and author of “Dig Your Heels In.”
Joan Kuhl, author of "Dig Your Heels In."
Joan Kuhl, author of "Dig Your Heels In."U.S. Soccer

The #MeToo movement helped topple predators and ushered in new laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. But there’s also been some unintended consequences. Men, for example, are now three times more uncomfortable mentoring women. This is bad news for women because men hold the majority of senior leadership positions in business, healthcare, government and sports.

We need men to support our careers as our sponsors, mentors, trusted teammates, protegees and partners. So how do we approach them to give feedback about “what they said” and how they behaved? How do we get them to better work with us and our peers?

Here are three ways to get true, male allies on board to create equitable workplaces and opportunities:

1. Don’t let it slide.

Women have asked me for advice about how to deal with men whom they perceive as allies but whom have recently spoken or behaved otherwise. For example, Nicole, a female executive at a financial technology firm, shared a story about a colleague who confided in her that her boss stated that “women on maternity leave should not be included in the promotional cycle” without further discussion.

Mark, the man who made this remark, was both an influential leader in the organization and a trusted colleague of Nicole’s. In fact, Nicole has recounted several occasions when he had been a strong advocate of hers. Nicole was hesitant to say something to Mark in the case that this was a one-off incident.

But the truth is that a comment like Mark’s can trigger bias in the talent management process and become a viral rumor that intimidates women from announcing pregnancy or pursuing motherhood. Maternal bias is one of the strongest types as it assumes women can’t be highly committed to both work and family. Even fathers face pushback for spending time with their kids. We need to realize that family leave is good for employees, families and companies too. Research shows employees are happier, more productive and it leads to higher retention.

So, what can you do to avoid a huge negative ripple effect from one person’s comment?

Follow up directly: express your desire to better understand his perspective on the performance and promotion process.

Frame your intention: state your commitment to ensure that employees feel the company fully supports working parents.

Initiate a dialogue: Broach this topic without betraying the confidence of your female colleague. You can mention that this sentiment has been expressed through multiple sources and you want to be proactive in aligning leadership to an inclusive and equitable process so you want to explore his perspective and share your own.

If Mark truly is an ally, then he should be open to reflecting on times in the past where he may have not represented this as a company value and be ready to explore opportunities in the future to restate his support for the advancement of women throughout all stages of life.

2. Give explicit guidance

More research unveils a growing angst amongst men to discuss relationships with women in the workplace. Men report being insecure about how women really feel about them and this amplifies their avoidance of the subject. We must be really explicit about what is and what is not appropriate in scenarios surrounding mentorship, talent management and day to day interactions.

Jermyn Davis, a 2nd year MBA student at the University of North Carolina Kenan Flagler Business School serves as the Vice President of Allies in the Carolina Women in Business student group. For the majority of his professional career, he has reported to female leaders and was raised in a dual career household which had a profound influence on his support for gender equity.

Incidents have come up in both the classroom and in his workplace experiences where he believes men could do a better job championing women:

Distribute office housework responsibilities: In study groups and team projects, he makes sure the “office housework” like taking notes, coordinating meetup logistics and tracking key dates doesn’t fall solely on female peers.

Use data and say something: In the classroom, if a student, male or female, makes a remark that implies bias toward women, he doesn’t let it go unnoticed. He respectfully, points out how it could be based in gender stereotypes or how the nature of the remark could be harmful to a woman’s perceived leadership abilities or performance. Investing time in growing his understanding and awareness of the business case for equality arms him with the data to justify his intentions.

Look for representation gaps: Jermyn leverages his leadership influence to advocate for representation on campus and in the workplace. He will point out the gaps on teams to peers and advocate for the recruitment of women in the interview process even by recommending high potential women from his own MBA and professional network.

3. Promote safe, comfortable and respectful mentoring relationships

Having a mentor is one of the most profound ways that people develop and find success at work. We need to ensure that everyone can have access to a safe, comfortable and respectful mentoring relationship. If a male leader or peer does not have female protegees, offer these tips to encourage them to diversify the impact of their mentorship.

Commit to the same policies for meeting with a female mentee as you would for meeting with a male mentee. If you feel more comfortable meeting with women in public spaces during work hours, then that is how you should meet with men as well. Having different rules for men and women can put female colleagues at a disadvantage by limiting their opportunities and access to more senior leaders.

Establish trust from the start: Listen closely; ask about her experiences and how the barriers she may be facing at work are perpetuated without you potentially being aware of it.

Focus on goals and competencies: Make sure that professional growth and development is a top priority of your mentor meetings and that your compliments and feedback focus on professional skills and talents. Align your coaching to the growth of the business and speak to her unique influence and impact.

The bottom line is that the men who we believe have the right intentions still need our explicit guidance around what is and what is not appropriate. In environments where bad behaviors surface, we must align with allies who are both male and female to champion a speak up culture. There is robust and extensive data to reinforce the business benefits for how gender equality efforts serve all of our careers. So, learn the facts, use the data and reinforce it confidently. Together, we can either be part of the 100-year-old problem or join forces to champion the solutions.

Joan Kuhl is a champion for girls leadership and advancing women in the workforce. She is the author of Dig Your Heels In, Misunderstood Millennial Talent and has led global research on gender and generational dynamics in the workplace for corporations and business schools. Joan is a #SheBelieves Champion for the U.S. Soccer Organization developing a national leadership curriculum and currently serves on the board of Girls Inc of NYC.