How we’re using ThoughtExchange to talk about sexual harassment

Lea Scherck

Workplace sexual harassment. There, we said it. It’s a tough topic to even broach, let alone for a company to openly talk about.

A 2016 study revealed that 75 percent of all workplace harassment incidents never get reported because fear, shame and entrenched cultural norms tend to keep people from coming forward, whether through official complaint channels or by talking with coworkers.

At ThoughtExchange, we’ve worked hard to create a culture of open, even fearless communication. Despite that, we recently realized that sexual harassment—and the broader issue of sexism in general—is something we’ve never collectively leaned into talking about.

But given the prevalence of the #metoo campaign, it’s a conversation we recently decided to have internally, using our software. In addition to the value of the resulting insights, the exchange we ran also reaffirmed to us that our technology creates a safe space for people to share whatever’s on their mind.  

Starting the conversation

The conversation started at our senior leadership meeting late last month. Our Co-Founder and President Jim Firstbrook brought it up, in the context of the flood of media articles on sexual harassment after the Weinstein allegations.

It made us wonder whether it’s something we take for granted, that it just “doesn’t happen around here” because we’ve always been a small, tight-knit group of people who support and respect each other.

While our culture is strong and dynamic, we’re also in the middle of a high-growth period and turning into not such a small company anymore. It’s easy enough to think that sexual harassment can’t happen around here. But the hard truth is that with growth, comes complexity and risk. I’m sure every company founder who’s experienced sexual harassment issues also once felt “this will never happen here.”

So we decided as a company to think proactively about preventing sexual harassment, so that it never becomes something that “just happens.”

We discussed as a senior leadership team and agreed it was an important, timely conversation to have. After providing all 100+ people at an all-company meeting with the rationale for the discussion, our CEO Dave MacLeod launched a Standard Exchange to let people respond in their own words to this question: “What are your thoughts about sexism and sexual harassment issues here at ThoughtExchange?”

Why it works

Holy smokes. If you’re a leader reading this, there’s a good chance that fear and vulnerability might be your initial reaction. How could we ask our staff such an open-ended question, and one on such a potentially explosive topic?

The short answer is, over the years we’ve used ThoughtExchange to talk about all kinds of things, both internally and with our K-12 education customers (like bullying, trauma and suicide). We’ve learned how well it works for making meaningful progress on even the most difficult of topics.

Here’s why it works for talking about sexual harassment (and just about any tough topic):

  • Confidentiality People don’t have to be afraid or ashamed about sharing their experiences, as everything shared is confidential.  
  • Minimal conflict and bias – People can say what they want, others can only respond with stars. Because everyone gets to see and rate what others confidentially share, people consider other perspectives without preconception or bias.
  • Culture – Having this kind of conversation helps create a culture of empathy, where people feel valued and respected. And one in which staff are much more likely to contribute more freely and support changes.

An important caveat: Talking about sexual harassment isn’t the best place to start having important staff conversations in your organization. It’s a process. You start with an exchange on a simple topic, like “How are we doing?” or “What do you think about vacation time?”. Then you consistently respond to what has been shared and build trust over time. After people get used to being regularly heard and acknowledged, they develop the trust needed to let you tackle harder topics.

Two weeks and 55 thoughts later

At the time of writing the exchange has been running for 14 days. As people share more thoughts, others go in to check on what’s happening in Discover and place stars on any new thoughts shared since they last visited.

What have we learned about our own workplace? We’re grateful to learn that for the many people in our company that participated, harassment hasn’t been an issue. And, that people feel this is the right time to have this discussion.

Here are some of the other top thoughts shared in the exchange (so far):

I see the whole world struggling with these issues and I want us to commit to building a company where anything of this nature is not tolerated. I think it takes commitment from all of us to make this happen.

In terms of practical actions, people told us loud and clear that it’s time for us to develop a formal policy.

A formal policy for how to handle harassment should it happen would really take the stress off the person needing to report. It’s a hard enough situation to be in without needing to worry about what the outcome will be or who to talk to about it.

And we heard about the importance of equity in our leadership development.

To set us up for success, we need to build leadership skills through a lens of equity so that everyone—regardless of gender—has opportunity. This is likely already happening, but let’s be conscious of it.

Time for action

Now that everyone in the company has had a chance to share and hear each other on this topic, the next step is for us to send out a report with responses that let them know leadership has heard their thoughts.

Then, we clearly have our work cut out for us. We need to take action on the most important points. So, we’re going to have our heads down working on a sexual harassment framework and policy that meets the needs of our people, and looking for ways to integrate equity into all of our leadership training.

Even more importantly, we have to keep working on our commitment to build a company where respect is central to everything we do.

About the Author

Lea Scherck

As Senior Vice President Lea is a seasoned leader with a background in collaboration, research and technology. She obtained her Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability in Sweden, where collaboration was an integral part to all learning outcomes. Joining ThoughtExchange as the first facilitator, Lea went on to grow and lead the team as VP Service before taking on her current role. She is fascinated by group dynamics and communication and the application of technology to improve them. She also likes to consider herself a world traveler.