Respect, Dignity, and Meaning in Work

By: William A. Spenla
Managing Director and Founder
P4 Advisors LLC

It is November 2017 and we are reading explosive headlines about allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault by men in leadership roles in the workplace. Did I say November 1967? 1977? 1987? Nope, 2017. Imagine that!

The team at P4 Advisors has many years of experience dealing with the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, including training, establishment of safe reporting systems, investigation of complaints, and initiation of appropriate corrective action when necessary.

Our approach is to level the playing field and focus on the need for respect, dignity, and meaning in work. Our focus is to help women and men work together as colleagues to promote trust, enthusiastic debate (positive conflict), commitment, and accountability…all of which leads to outstanding personal, professional, and organizational performance.

Successful businesses get results because they work hard at it. Preventing sexual harassment in the workplace requires a commitment from leadership (tone at the top), a connection to the core values of the organization, a contextual business-wide conversation and effective training, and a clear message that sexual harassment at any level in the organization will not be tolerated.

Help Me Understand The Legal Meaning of Sexual Harassment.

In the US, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Experience shows that while most sexual harassment cases involve a man harassing a woman, sexual harassment may also involve persons of the same sex, or a woman harassing a man.

While each case must be evaluated on an individual basis, we can generally say that sexual harassment is any unwanted, unwelcome verbal, non-verbal (visual), or physical advance, request for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature where:

Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment; or,
Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for making employment decisions affecting such individuals; or, Such conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment, or interferes with an individual’s work performance.

So What’s Going on Today?

Clearly, it doesn’t matter the industry or whether it’s the public or private sector, after 50-some years of recognizing what sexual harassment is, knowing how it shatters women’s and men’s careers, and millions spent on training, here we are again reading astonishing headlines. It is hard to fathom.

I try to look at these situations as a son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, and coach. You could say that sexual harassment is almost entirely a men’s issue and it will continue to flourish if good men remain silent. I think there is a lot of evidence in that regard.

The good news is there are too many good men in this world to let the scourge of sexual harassment continue to consume the lives of the women we love and befriend. I suggest a three-pronged approach to attack and eradicate this workplace disease, and men need to be present, vocal, and involved. 1) Experiential awareness training. 2) Subject matter comprehension. 3) Everyday application and roles and responsibilities.


I’ve had the good fortune to co-facilitate many prevention of sexual harassment workshops with my women colleagues years ago in a multi-national global business. The workshop participant make-up was almost always 50% men, 50% women and the facilitation format was interactive and experiential.

The focus was on education and awareness about the subject matter and why the elimination of sexual harassment (including discrimination, sexual assault, and rape) in the workplace was part and parcel of the company’s core value, Respect for People. It included specific examples of sexual harassment (see below) the identification of a safe and supportive reporting process one could follow if they felt targeted, and a transparent explanation of how the company would investigate a complaint. We spent time discussing the concept of and differences in intent and impact.

The workshop closed with a definitive review of the corporate policy prohibiting sexual harassment and explained the corrective action consequences for initiating the behavior and/or retaliating against the complainant or witness(es). And we asked everyone to take personal responsibility and continue to enhance their individual competency to prevent sexual harassment in order to promote a business environment of mutual respect.

Hundreds of these workshops were conducted across the corporation and at each worksite, the manager required all employees to attend. This effort helped to significantly level the playing field, shift behavior, and generally, the response from the employee community was positive and appreciative.

Did it result in eliminating sexual harassment? No. Actually, we saw a spike in reported cases following the initial training because, as we were told by complainants, they finally felt empowered to report their situations. But as the organization-wide conversation evolved, we experienced a stabilization, less incidents, and deeper acceptance of the Respect for People core value.


One powerful section of the workshop included the definition of sexual harassment and an acknowledgement that it was not only inappropriate, it was illegal. But when we provided specific examples, attendees came to attention. They clearly wanted guidance. For the women that meant a validation of what they may have experienced and didn’t know what to call it.

For the men, some understood for the first time that a behavior they believed was harmless, was indeed something that required personal change of a repeated habit.

Why is this important now? Because based on the past few months, I think its time to go back to basics and review behaviors that are or lead to sexual harassment. Here are some specific examples of behaviors that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. If you are a man, take a deep breath and consume these behaviors, for example, as if your mother, sister, wife, daughter, or granddaughter was the target.


Threatening or implying that sexual cooperation will have an effect on employment, assignment, compensation, advancement, or other terms and conditions of employment. Making sexually demeaning comments or innuendos.

Using names or labels which others find offensive such as “darling,” “hunk,” “doll,” or “honey.” Making sexual comments about a person’s body, or being overly complimentary, especially about appearances or dress. Turning work discussions into sexual topics. Telling obscene or lewd jokes or stories or making sexual gestures or suggestions.

Asking personal questions about social or sexual life. Repeated and unwanted flirtation, advances, or propositions. Making kissing sounds, howling, or smacking lips. Telling lies or spreading rumors about a person’s personal sex life. Use of abusive, threatening, provocative or inflammatory language or gestures, including mental intimidation.


Looking at or “surveying” a person up and down (“elevator eyes”). Staring at someone to intimidate. Deliberately blocking a person’s path. Following (stalking) a person. Giving personal gifts unwanted by the recipient. Displaying sexually suggestive, offensive, explicit, or pornographic visuals and materials such as posters, cards, cartoons, or graffiti, etc.

Using electronic media (e.g., email, internet) to access, create, retrieve, forward, distribute, or post sexually suggestive, offensive, explicit, or pornographic information. The display of internet sites or other media or material or information on computer monitors or radio or television “talk shows” or other broadcasts containing sexually explicit, vulgar, profane, or otherwise offensive language.

Making facial expressions such as winking, throwing kisses, or licking lips. Making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements. Pranks, such as exposing underwear. Ignoring or not taking seriously an employee who complains about sexual harassment.


Giving a massage around the neck or shoulders. Touching a person’s clothing, hair, or body when the recipient finds it offensive. Hanging around (invading the space around) a person. Hugging, kissing, patting, stroking, grabbing, or groping a person. Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person. Standing unnecessarily close to or brushing up against a person. Sexual battery, assault, or rape.

These are examples of real-life situations. Other behaviors not listed may rise to the level of sexual harassment. Does your organization have the time and energy to “allow” these power trips to interfere with the goals of your business?


If I am a Recipient of discrimination or harassment, I must respond to it – confront the person and, if that does not work or if it is too difficult, report it.

If I am a Co-Worker, I must recognize it, respond where necessary to assist the recipient and contribute toward building a respectful environment.

If I am a Supervisor, I need to monitor my own behavior in order to set the example and promote the environment expected by the organization, and I need to know what’s going on in my area.

If I am a Manager, I must set an example of personal integrity, hold people who report to me accountable for a respectful environment, and take this issue as seriously as other business objectives, such as customer satisfaction, quality, and other business principles which I manage.

If I am the Leader, I must set the proper tone at the top through my personal behavior and actions, including establishing a bias for prompt and appropriate action when situations are reported, and recognizing individuals who set positive examples to follow.

If I am the Harasser, I must recognize when my behavior is having a negative effect on another person and STOP what I am doing. And, if I am not sure my actions are inappropriate, I have to be sensitive to others and ask.

P4 Advisors Can Help

I hope this has been helpful in gaining a better understanding of the importance of preventing sexual harassment, an interpersonal power access behavior that has No Place in the Workplace. In future articles, we will add more detail about each of the approaches we have described here.

We are always looking to help organizations establish work environments where people can live up to their potential, see greater possibilities, and deliver performance contributions necessary for sustained success.

P4 Advisors would be pleased to consult with you and your team in your efforts to build Respect, Dignity, and Meaning in Work in your organization.