Sunday, March 24, 2013

Communication as an antidote to fear

Since I last wrote, I've changed jobs and moved from New York City to the Bay Area. During that time I had to do those HR computer tutorials that inform new hires of the company's code of conduct, et cetera. I'd been wanting to comment on their effectiveness (or not) in fostering positive a positive professional culture, and then I was walloped by a bunch of deadlines. Then the whole Adria Richards thing happened and it made the post that had been simmering in my brain a lot more relevant.

One of the videos I had to complete was on workplace harassment. It was so over the top that I was baffled anyone would think it might connect with an actual employee. What really struck me about it was how broadly the video described workplace harassment. Rather than encouraging people to ask a colleague about what kind of humor they do or don't like, or possibly speaking to a team member and inviting them to respectfully give any advice as to what they can do to make their team a more comfortable place, the given rule of thumb was "if you have any inkling that this might make someone slightly uncomfortable, don't say it."

Maybe instead of trying to ambiguously appeal to everyone, a more effective way of keeping people comfortable might be to encourage people not to be afraid to talk about things that bother them with each other, instead of being quietly unsure of what someone will or won't be offended by. I admit that's a difficult thing to do. A personal example: at one point I was on a project with a male project manager who was a genuinely, good, supportive PM. Occasionally he'd make harsh criticism of female clients in a specifically gendered way, though I never brought this up because I didn't want my PM to become defensive or read this as if I was calling him a sexist. Because he wasn't, he was a good person who happened to have a bad habit. But I (and other women I've spoken to) have had experiences where they are met with hostile or defensive resistance when pointing out less than considerate behavior, and it does create fear in talking about what does or doesn't make a comfortable environment for the people who happen to be in it.

So while I am not defending anyone's actions (Ms. Richards', the developers, or otherwise), I can see how it might be less scary to post criticism online than to explain to someone face-to-face how their comments are making you feel. Too bad the takeaway from the incident will almost certainly not be "next time let's just politely explain what we feel to be appropriate."