A Time of Change

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It’s getting much harder to shock Americans today. Disturbing news stories of high-profile leaders in multiple industries engaging in inappropriate, harassing, and abusive behavior in the workplace are now common. Equally as distressing is frequent news of emboldened racism and people acting out on biases. As a result, there is heightened sensitivity for such behavior, and businesses need to respond appropriately.

Your small business likely has some formal and informal preventative measures in place, including equal opportunity employment, anti-harassment and discrimination polices, and training to reinforce the expectation of friendly, respectful behavior toward internal and external guests. But are you doing enough?

Most aerial parks, ropes courses, zip lines, and tour companies are small operations and don’t have a human resource professional on staff. Owners and managers are the de facto HR practitioners tasked with creating desirable cultures that attract and retain good people who want to build careers in outdoor pursuits.

Leaders may field complaints from team members and guests in distress about conduct they feel is offensive and needs to be addressed. But what if the manager or team member is unsure, intimidated, or uncomfortable with confrontation? In many cases, the people tasked with handling these complaints haven’t necessarily been taught how to deal with them. 

For management, inaction is not a solution. On the contrary, it’s condonation—essentially, management’s stamp of approval of the behavior. And that might place your business in legal jeopardy. To avoid that, first audit your existing practices and policies. Then ask, how can your business strengthen its commitment to a harassment-free environment where respect gets respect for both internal team members and external guests?

HARASSMENT DEFINED

Harassment is a pattern of repeated offensive behavior that appears to a reasonable observer to intentionally target a specific person or persons. Abuse can take many different forms, such as: physical or verbal maltreatment, bullying, assault, violation, rape, unjust practices, or other types of aggression.

It’s also a “quid pro quo,” an exchange between a supervisor and a team member, say, such as a promise of a raise or promotion in exchange for a sexual favor (think Harvey Weinstein).

To protect against such treatment, both federal and state employment laws define a protected class as a group of people who share a common characteristic and are legally protected from discrimination based on that characteristic. Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate due to race, color, sex (gender), age (40 and older), religion, national origin, disability, citizenship status, or genetic information.

Train team members to avoid provocative behavior, and how to respond to a guest who complains of harassment.

OUTDOOR ADVENTURES AND GUESTS

Our guests are looking to connect with nature and enjoy an adventure. Our team members and guides are the conduit for bringing these memorable experiences to life.

Most parks provide team members with thorough step-by-step protocols to ensure the safety and wellbeing of guests. In contrast, guidelines may be much less specific on how to demonstrate professionalism when in close proximity to the guest, what exactly to wear in a variety of weather conditions, and how to use good judgment when harnessing and de-harnessing. Consistent policies ensure that each guest has an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Best preventative practices with guests:

1. Wear appropriate attire. Be very specific about what is permissible, especially for staff who come in physical contact with guests.

2. Prepare the guest when harnessing or de-harnessing. Use consistent language. “May I approach you?” Explain exactly how the harness will be attached. Ask whether a parent would like to outfit his or her child with your verbal guidance.

3. Don’t joke about touching. Keep comments and instruction professional.

4. Appropriate response to propositions. Tell team members that they are not expected to put up with unwelcome guest conduct, and it’s OK to tell the guest that his or her behavior is inappropriate. Identify whom onsite staff should to go to for help with an inappropriate guest’s requests or comments.

OUR TEAM MEMBERS

What reasonable expectations can managers have of team members to stand up to a pattern of unwelcome behavior—or just one creepy quid pro quo request from someone in a position of power? While we want team members to not engage, and speak up and tell the offender to stop, it’s up to management to notice—and act.

Your business should conduct annual training for anti-harassment and bullying. Also, conduct a live, robust discussion of real-life issues that happen with both guests and employees at work. That’s much more effective than a canned, dry, impersonal legal or computer-based presentation or “quiz.”

What to cover in the discussion:

  • romantic consensual behavior (public displays of affection) at work
  • unwanted flirting
  • supervisor/employee and employee/guest relationships 
  • cohabitation rules and sleeping assignments (if applicable) 
  • prohibited verbal, physical and cyber behaviors
  • bullying 
  • SOGIE
  • how to report unwelcome behavior

UNINTENTIONAL GENDER BIAS

Gender bias is defined as unequal treatment in employment opportunity—such as promotion, pay, benefits, and privileges—and expectations due to attitudes based on the sex of an employee or group of employees.

The outdoor industry in general has predominantly male management teams, and upward mobility is more accessible for men. A notable exception to this is the environment and culture created by Sarah and Tim Bell, owners of The Gorge Zipline located near Saluda, N.C. The Bells have deliberately and systematically created a comfortable environment and culture where team members of all genders can develop and thrive. 

The primarily female management team encourages egalitarianism, diversity, and opportunities for growth among all team members. “We made a deliberate effort to both attract and retain the best talent, regardless of gender. We hire for attitude and train for skill. We reward and promote team members who demonstrate both the technical expertise and soft skills that keep our internal and externals guests returning again and again,” says Sara.

Why is creating gender equality in management of small businesses a challenge? Without malice, male managers may not consider spending informal time with aspiring female leaders or individual contributors because it seems inappropriate and uncomfortable to ask a woman out for a beer. Just as it’s easy and natural for women to spend time with other women, men are conditioned to hanging out with men.

The Gorge owners made a strategic decision to improve gender diversity. It was hard for females to know how to behave at the management table when no one was paving the way for them. Being ambitious is not always an admired trait in women. Subtle digs at a woman’s drive for success can derail a promising career.

GENDER IDENTITY 

Gender identity is how you think about yourself. Traditionally, we have learned that there are only two gender identities, male and female, defined as “gender binary.” Now, that applies to those who identify as one or the other, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth. But gender is a spectrum, and not limited to just two possibilities. A child could identify as both, or neither, or as another gender entirely. Agender people do not identify with any gender.

Think that’s not worth consideration? Think again. In the last year, several jurisdictions—Oregon, New York, Washington, D.C., and Washington State—have recognized a non-binary option on drivers’ licenses. California became the first state to allow non-binary residents to change their gender on all relevant legal documents, including birth certificates, to a gender-neutral option.

In the outdoor industry, we serve guests from all walks of life. We invest in team members who create memorable experiences for every demographic and psychographic. Your business strives to create a nondiscriminatory environment for all guests and team members. You need not wait for your own state to legislate additional SOGIE protection for your valued employees.

HOW TO AVOID SEXISM

Be mindful of using nonsexual and nonsexist language and teaching styles:

1. Avoid humor or remarks that demean or belittle different genders.    >>

2. Avoid using masculine terms such as “manpower,” “two-man tents,” etc.

3. Avoid stereotyping roles where leaders are assumed to be men, or women are ticket sellers. Ensure balanced gender representation.

4. Monitor your behavior. Do you treat men more seriously than women? Are you less attentive to female concerns and questions? Do you assume that all guests or employees are heterosexual?

5. Make upward mobility available to all by casting the net wide for a diverse field of applicants.

6. Have more than one gender involved in interviewing job candidates.

7. Eliminate naming park areas anything related to the female or male anatomy, or that degrade gay people or suggest physical sexual violence.

DISCRIMINATION IN PAY PRACTICES

Hiring practices can perpetuate discrimination, creating a form of institutionalized discrimination regarding gender pay disparity. Why? Because businesses typically decide what they will pay new hires based partly or entirely on how much they earned at their last jobs. Since women are often paid less than their male colleagues, asking about past salaries nearly guarantees that the wage disparity will continue.

It takes courage and commitment to audit your pay practices. Many managers ignore pay disparity and discrimination, hoping it will magically vanish.

Does your business employ an objective system to assign pay rates and to identify candidates for leadership continuity? Are you proactively sourcing and prescribing development plans for qualified candidates of all genders? You can begin by auditing your talent pipeline to create deliberate, intentional advancement of qualified women, even for male-dominated areas and departments, by providing transparent opportunities for upward mobility.

DO THE RIGHT THING

Consider your own business’s investigation and resolution mechanisms. How responsive are they? Have there been times when leadership was unwilling to make decisions and approve actions, even when there was a sense of urgency? Managers may have avoided launching investigations and enacting progressive corrective action procedures for certain high-performing or sacred-cow employees or managers.

Imagine this scenario. A trusted high- performing male employee complains repeatedly about an angry manager with an explosive temper who yells only at female employees. This long-tenured manager is highly valued for his operations expertise. The owner wants to retain this male employee even though there has been plenty of incidents and rationale to separate him for just cause. When legal counsel advised that they separate him with a severance agreement, they chose not to reveal any of the complaints against him.

There’s plenty wrong with this scenario. It might take less time to ask what went right. Did you catch it? It was the male employee standing up for his female colleagues. This is the kind of action that changes dysfunctional norms. This action can take several forms: Witnesses call out bad behavior. Men don’t let other men get away with “locker room talk” or blatant bullying. Women don’t diminish the sensitivities of other women.

There’s a further unhappy aspect of this scenario: For the angry manager’s next employer, the management team and their unsuspecting employees will be exposed to the same destructive, uncorrected behaviors.

FOUR MANAGEMENT MUSTS

Change is often difficult. The following steps can hasten and ease the process.

1. Train managers, especially front-line supervisors, to keep a finger on the pulse of their team members. It’s up to owners and management to look into rumors of inappropriate behavior, thoughtfully listen to concerns, and address them swiftly.

2. Keep up to date on HR practices and emerging laws. Small businesses can often make human resource blunders that hurt profits and keep them from growing. Federal, state, and local government regulations, laws and reporting requirements change constantly. Consider becoming a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Anyone who is involved in HR, supervises the HR function, or otherwise has an interest in HR is invited to join. www.shrm.org

3. Owners should take the lead on investigations in a timely manner to get to the truth. They must consistently enforce policies for reporting, investigating, and resolving complaints of bullying, harassment, and discrimination.

4. Managers should audit physical environments such as locker rooms, kitchens, and male-centric areas where offensive items might be displayed. Supervisors must understand it is their responsibility to notice and report behaviors even when team members don’t complain.

When leaders choose to champion and adopt these practical suggestions as strategic initiatives, their businesses—and the industry—can become a collective beacon for fairness and practical progress. 

Reach Laura Moriarty at www.tahoetrainingpartners.com.

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