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As a leader in your company, harassers are probably nice to you. So how can you tackle something you can't see?

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Two years ago, I wrote a piece for LeadDev called, ‘Harassers are nice to me, and probably to you’. In it, I described something surprising I’d found: as I got more senior in my career and gained more power, harassment and bullying – which I used to be subject to all the time – seemed to evaporate.

This wasn’t, I realized, because people weren’t being abusive anymore. Instead, it was because harassers target people at work who have less power. As I gained power, they tended to hide their actions from me and my peers – that is, from the very people with the ability to do something about problematic coworkers.

In sum, just as we are able to meaningfully address bad behavior at work, we tend to stop seeing it. I explained: ‘If you’re in a position of power at work, you’re unlikely to see workplace harassment in front of you. That’s because harassment and bullying are attempts to exert power over people with less of it. People who behave in those ways don’t tend to do so with people they perceive as having power already.’

Worse, leaders’ inability to see abuse means that even the best-intentioned of us very often become reinforcing parts of the structure that has protected people who targeted many of us earlier in our careers.

In the original article, I talked about how you can become aware of harassment as a leader so that you can take action. But recently, when I revisited the ideas to give a talk for LeadDev NY, I realized that a key bit of my advice had been misguided.

That’s why I’m sharing an updated perspective on how engineering leaders perceive (or don’t perceive) workplace harassment, and recapping my advice on how to make things better in your org.

People with power can’t see harassment.

In the original piece, I noted that some of my colleagues at the time professed to being unclear on what harassment looks like – and they wanted to know, so that they could spot it. So I devoted a fair amount of space to describing it. While it’s useful to know what the patterns might be, the main insight of the article was that as a person with power, you wouldn’t see harassment. So the idea that you should know what to look for among your colleagues was off-base. It even undermined the central point.

Put directly, a lot of harassment looks like unwanted attention, unwanted invitations, unwanted touching, and unwanted comments in person or online. If you’re not the target of these interactions, you won’t know what’s unwanted. Additionally, you probably won’t see them at all.

Build trust with the people who can see it.

Given those conditions, what’s most important to understand is how you can build trust and communication channels that will make it easy for other people to tell you about bad behavior. That might be people who are subject to it, or simply other people in your organization who are aware of it.

In the original piece, I offered a number of ideas for building that essential trust. Here’s a recap:

  • A few times a year, I post a public message in Slack about how I used to experience harassment all the time, but now I rarely see it at all because of my title. So even though I’m more likely in a position to help, I need other people’s help to understand what’s happening. I post infrequently enough that people pay attention, but often enough that new people get the message.
  • I’m unsurprised when I hear that somebody with social power who is very friendly to me has been causing problems for other people. In other words, I believe the stories of marginalized and underrepresented people over my own experience. (This is genuinely hard!)
  • I hold skip-level meetings at least quarterly, so that everyone who reports up to me knows who I am and that my door is open.
  • I welcome and cultivate professional 1:1 relationships with younger people who don’t report to me. They’re often aware of problems in the organization and need support outside their reporting chain to figure out how to speak up.
  • I talk often about inequity. Being vocal about it is a signal to people throughout the organization about the values I hold and the culture I’m aiming to help create.

Ultimately, while the most effective leaders will understand the basic themes of power abuse, it’s more important to build trust with those who are experiencing it and are aware of it–and to believe them when they come to you. You’ll get a lot farther discovering bad behavior with open ears than sharp eyes.