The Root Cause of Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace


Viewing someone as a human doing rather than a human being is a slippery slope, and never has that been more evident than in the headlines lately.

One way to understand how this “human doing” view arises is to think of it this way: People fulfill psychological and material needs for others at work, and it’s often an if/then dynamic. In other words, if they do something well, then I’ll benefit. As a result, employees become human doings for their colleagues, rather than human beings with their colleagues. The fact that leaders and managers often refer to employees as FTEs, resources, bodies, human capital or my staff only serves to reinforce this mindset.

As positional and reputational power increases, leaders can expect even more from employees. If they do more, then the leader(s) benefit more. And so, the objectification grows: People become doers of work versus beings of value.

For many in power, it’s not a stretch, then, to discover all the ways they can have people do things that will yield a benefit. In this context, it’s easy to see how leaders rationalize sexual advances and misconduct, just like it’s easy to rationalize economic, emotional, or schedule exploitation.

TIME magazine has recently recognized, though, that the silent voices viewed as human doings aren’t staying quiet and putting up with it any longer.

What Objectification Looks Like

It was my third real job after college, so I should have known better. But I had more power than I’d ever had at work, and it was implicit that everyone in the office was there to help me win. I was anxious about proving myself and had a lot to accomplish. My staff couldn’t be complacent because we had limited resources to work with.

I started to notice a problem developing when my requests of the administrative staff were not getting accomplished on time. One admin always tensed up when I asked her to do something. Her forehead would furl, her voice was fast, and she’d hesitatingly accept the assignment without questions. Later, I’d have to track the assignment down, and she’d flatly tell me that she was overwhelmed with tasks and that she hadn’t gotten to it yet.

On the advice of someone wiser than me, I sat down with her one day to get to know her. I just asked questions, listened, and asked follow-up questions to go beyond the surface answers. I learned that she had planned to be a nurse. That she loves to help others. And that she appreciates understanding the broader business context of the work she does.

I remember thinking: She’s a human being. If I continue to treat her like a human doing, I’ll abuse and exploit her value. If I can see her as a human being, someone who has tirelessly made it her mission to help others, I’ll appreciate and honor her value.

I continue to struggle with the temptation to view others as human doings, and I’ll bet you do, too.

To address the tragic and pervasive sexual misconduct in our society, we certainly need to educate, regulate, and implicate existing and would-be perpetrators.

First and foremost, though, we need to address the tragic and pervasive objectification of people in the workplace as human doings rather than human beings.

It starts with you and me and our own attitudes toward others in the workplace amid all the workplace pressures to get things done.

In response to the latest news stories about sexual misconduct in the workplace, I respond as G.K. Chesterton famously did years ago to a newspaper editor:

Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’

I am.

Do you see how we contribute to the problem? In what ways can you view others as human beings rather than human doings?

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