HR Management & Compliance

Fighting Harassment Means Having Uncomfortable Conversations (Podcast Transcript)

Hello, everyone, and welcome to HR Works, the podcast for HR professionals. We really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to join us. I am the host of HR Works, Jim Davis, and the editor of the HR Daily Advisor. This podcast aims to put valuable tools and knowledge into the hands and ears of you, the HR professional. Those tools will arm you with the best methods and strategies for attracting, motivating, and retaining top talent.


While the #MeToo movement was a critical step toward identifying widespread sexual harassment as a real problem and forged a path toward addressing that problem, it’s really just the beginning. Part of what makes sexual harassment so pervasive is how hard it is to talk about. Of course, it’s difficult for victims of sexual harassment, but it’s also difficult for everyone else to speak about. Today’s guest specializes in helping overcome that difficulty, with the goal of preventing sexual harassment.

Sarah Beaulieu is an author and a speaker and trains workplaces on sexual harassment prevention and response. Her book, Breaking the Silence Habit: A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the MeToo Workplace, offers employees and managers a path forward to learn and teach the skills required for safe and respectful workplaces for people of all genders. Sarah writes and speaks frequently about sexual harassment and violence. Her work and expertise have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, the Boston Business Journal, Fox News, and The Providence Journal, to name a few.

She has been a featured speaker at TEDx Beacon Street and the Business Innovation Factory Summit. Sarah enjoys engaging and training audiences at a wide variety of organizations, ranging from start-ups to larger companies and national conferences for fraternity members and members of the junior league. In 2017, Sarah founded the Uncomfortable Conversations Inc, a nonprofit organization dedicated to normalizing conversations about sexual violence, especially for young men. Sarah, thanks so much for joining us today.

This episode was originally released March 3, 2020, and you can listen to the audio here.

Sarah Beaulieu: Thank you for having me, Jim. Excited to talk to you about this.

Jim Davis: Absolutely. Why don’t we just jump right in?

Beaulieu: That’s good. We’ll get right into just the discomfort of talking about everything.

Davis: What makes these topics so difficult to talk about?

Beaulieu: Oh, I mean, they’re difficult for so many reasons and different reasons for different people, too. So, I think it’s sometimes these conversations … I would say one is, we’re pretty unpracticed at talking about boundaries, bodies, and behaviors in any setting but especially in a workplace setting. I think sometimes you have people who are identifying really strongly with people who experienced sexual harassment, so it makes it a charged topic for them.

And sometimes you’re speaking with somebody who might identify with somebody who’s a perpetrator or alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment, and that also makes it a difficult and challenging topic to talk about. Primarily, it’s just that we come to this topic with a lack of experience, and it gets in our way. It’s like you would never assume that … go into a group of people and try to just start speaking French to them without having any understanding of what their language capacity was on that language.

Davis: It’s understandable why it’s so challenging to talk about these things. I think that it’s a testament to how serious things have gotten that people are talking about it at all.

Beaulieu: Yeah. I mean, I think so. I think it’s also … what’s happening is that the #MeToo movement, in many ways, created a much more public awareness of something that was pervasively happening already. Right? And it’s turned up the volume on the conversations, but it hasn’t necessarily changed the productivity or effectiveness of those conversations or helped to transform them into the skills that we’re going to need to navigate work in gender-diverse workplaces, which are not going away.

Davis: Yeah, and you mentioned that at the core of this is that people don’t have practice, and you and I have spoken about this before, and I related a story to you about a situation where I saw someone get harassed in front of me, and I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything.

And I know that it’s not just that scenario, but people always talk about fight-and-flight response, but there’s a third much more common response, which is the freeze response. And something happens that gets your heart pumping, and it gets the adrenaline going. It’s pretty common for people, especially if it’s a novel situation, not to know what to do and then to not do anything.

Beaulieu: Yes, I think the fight, flight, or freeze perspective is an important one to keep in mind, particularly around higher-skill kinds of interventions. So, what you were talking about was witnessing somebody who was, in fact, being sexually harassed in a way that felt really unsafe for everybody in the room. I think part of the other thing that I talk about is thinking about this topic through the lens of habits, right? So, we have a habit of seeing or experiencing the feeling of discomfort and just staying silent about it.

Whereas, when we’re thinking about what are the skills that we really need in order to prevent sexual harassment from taking place, we have to start talking about things before they turn into incidents, which means that we have to break our habit of silence and start having conversations about things like, “Hey, when you meet a new person, do you shake their hand? Do you give them a hug? Do you kiss them on the cheek? How was that for you? Why do you like to do what you do?”

It’s like talking about things before they happen rather than waiting for somebody to get groped and then having a much more higher-stakes conversation being required.

Davis: To what degree do you think that the difficulty speaking about sexual harassment is contributing to the problem?

Beaulieu: I think it is significantly contributing to the problem, and I think it’s some of our beliefs about what those conversations ought to look like. So, when I think about conversation, I think about conversation as like a single moment in time, like a conversation that might take place between two people, but I also think about it as a cultural or community commitment to a series of conversations. Right?

So, I think part of what we sometimes get hung up on is that we need to have one conversation that’s going to prevent sexual harassment. So, typically, that conversation is a 45-minute compliance training; now, that’s sometimes delivered online, where I will tell you what the rules are and what needs to happen and what will happen if you break the rules, but I’m not going to actually give you any skills or opportunity to practice. So, it’s like we have these ideas that …

Or we witnessed something that is uncomfortable, or there’s somebody who has some troubling attitudes and behavior, and we think that we can have one conversation with them that will then permanently transform who they are as a human being.

Really, it’s about how do we embrace conversations, particularly conversations on this topic, as a practice for ourselves individually, a practice for an organization? And that’s going to be what leads to the kind of change that we want to see.

Davis: So many different aspects there to talk about. Do you believe that people can be, with dedicated effort, shown the right way, particularly people that maybe don’t understand that the things that they’re doing are unacceptable and damaging?

Beaulieu: Well, what I will say is that my area of expertise is not on supporting perpetrators of sexual harassment or violence and finding their way to a new life. Though, I would say as a human being, I do believe that people can change, but what I do know, through the lens of sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention, is that the community around you plays a significant role in preventing harmful behavior from continuing or escalating.

So, if you think about a spectrum of behaviors—this is one of the core principles of helpful intervention or bystander intervention—is if you think of a spectrum of behavior where on one side of the spectrum is behavior that’s like absolutely 100% respectful, safe, and consensual, and on the other end of the spectrum is behavior that is physically violent, there’s a range of behavior and attitudes that take place before that. Right?

Part of what the principle of bystander intervention is that the more that we as a community take responsibility for intervening on the earlier ends of the spectrum, the less likely it is for that behavior to escalate to a point that causes harm to others. When we are all taking responsibility for the safety and respect of our workplaces, collectively, we have power, whereas individually, we may not have that same kind of power, and that’s the power to hold people accountable and responsible.

So, it’s less about whether they’re going to change on the inside, but it’s more about whether or not they believe that the culture is enabling or empowering them to continue to commit harmful behaviors.

Davis: Let’s talk about bystander intervention, specifically. The situation that I was in where I was watching someone get harassed and I didn’t know what to do, is very common. When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that you can be trained to know what to do in that situation, and it’s obviously not a clear and obvious thing; it’s something that you need to be shown. How do you go about getting people to understand that there is training required, and what does that training look like?

Beaulieu: What the training looks like is pretty straightforward, right? So, it’s, one, you explain to people the concept of a spectrum of behavior and why it’s important to intervene. You then talk about what are the four types or styles of intervention that can be used in those kinds of situations.

One is to be direct, and that’s what most people think intervention is. It’s like saying something to the person who’s perpetrating the harassment. That’s only one of the four. The other three are to disrupt the behavior, so that could be to disrupt or to distract. To create some kind of distraction, like spill your drink on somebody or be like, “Hey, I think you’re needed in the other room,” or, “I hear your mom calling you.” It doesn’t matter what it is, it would depend on the context.

Delegating also works best if you have an understanding of power and bias. So, I think part of what makes your ability to intervene effectively depends on, one, knowing the strategies but two, recognizing who you are in the context of a situation and that others might bring two different styles of intervention.

This happened to me the other night on the train coming home from work, where there was a man who was verbally accosting female passengers on the train. I actually did a couple of these intervention tactic.

The last one is to delay or to defer, which is basically to speak to the person who has been victimized. So, what I did is I stood up, and I went over to the person who had just been verbally accosted, and I said, “Hey, are you OK?” And I said it loud enough for everybody to hear. “Do you need someone to walk you off the train safely?” It’s basically like, my message was “I care about the safety of this train, and I’ll do something about it.” And so, the message wasn’t only for that person; that message is also for the other people around and has an impact on the community.

But then, at that point, the woman gets off the train, and the man continues to verbally accost somebody else, and now me and this other woman are standing between the man and the person that he is verbally accosting, but it started to feel scary, right? I mean, he was physically bigger than me. So, I looked down the train, and I made eye contact with a man, and I said, “Help. Can you please help us?” And he said, “I got you.” And then he was able to intervene in a way that was different. He was able to do more of that physical power language of “Why don’t you have a seat?” And I think in that particular moment, I’m not going to change the fact that this man was verbally accosting women and not verbally accosting men, but I’m going to use that to my advantage and get a helpful person who can be helpful, if activated, and intervene in a way that’s going to be appropriate for that situation. So, everybody gets off the train safely, and that was what we wanted in the end.

But you can teach people that, and the way that you teach them that is that you would come up with a few realistic scenarios at varying levels, and you have people come up with ideas of what they would say that would represent each of those four kinds of intervention tactics.

Again, those are delay, delegate, disrupt, and direct. It’s called the four D’s of bystander intervention. And then, you would practice those. There’s another advantage of practicing them in a group setting, vs.  a written assignment. When you practice those kinds of scenarios and conversations in a group setting, you begin to realize, “OK, well maybe my personal style is a little more like … maybe I’m more skilled at delegating, but there’s somebody who’s really good at direct, and particularly with a different style of person than me.”

By being able to hear other people, you also then start to think about like, “Well, how would I activate the right kinds of people to help in different kinds of situations?” I mean, you can do it in an hour to 90 minutes, and it’s just such a great … whether it’s inside of the office or if you have organizations that are interacting with people at conferences, on the road, in client situations where it’s … I think it’s just such a useful skill to have and to practice.

Davis: It’s very interesting. When I think back on what I would have said—I think a lot of people do this—you tend to want to have directly engaged them. Right? I think that’s, perhaps, the most obvious one is to say, “Hey, you, stop,” or, “That’s not right.” So, some of these other ones are, I think, a lot less obvious, particularly the distract one, which I find very interesting. Could you just talk a little bit more about the rationale behind that and what happens afterward? Is it just to stop the moment, or does it have a long-lasting effect?

Beaulieu: I think there’s two parts to it, right? So, I think one is when you reorient your goal. If your goal is to stop the bad person from being a bad person, that feels like a very overwhelming goal. You’re probably also not going to be like … is there something that you would be able to say that would achieve that effect in the moment? No. But if you reframe that to “My goal is to reestablish safety and respect in this moment,” and so that’s your goal. I would also argue that punching some guy in the face is like, while that might momentarily feel good, that actually doesn’t achieve the goal of maintaining safety and respect in the space that you’re in.

So, you don’t want to escalate; you want to de-escalate, and you want to stop the harm from taking place. So, simply by disrupting, you’re then in a position of being able to more intentionally and safely handle what’s going to happen next.

I think it gives you that moment. You interrupt the harmful behavior that’s happening or the troubling comments or the troubling actions, and then that gives you an opportunity to think, “OK, well, what do I do next?” It doesn’t mean that you never have a direct conversation with somebody who was perpetrating something like that, but certainly having a conversation with them after the fact, when you’ve thought about who’s the right person to have the conversation with this person, is better than jumping in and escalating something in a lot of situations.

Davis: Right. And I imagine that it’s useful to have more than one tool because each situation is different.

Beaulieu: Yes.

Davis: I’ve seen that thing on the train, not necessarily with it being sexual harassment-style, but I’ve been on the subway in New York City quite a few times, and aggressive people show up, and they start spouting off. And almost every time, everyone just looks down, they get out of the way, and they wait for the person to go away. I think a couple of times, I’ve witnessed it turn into fist fights, but other than that, it’s that instinct to just shut down and just hope it doesn’t … and on a subway, at the end of the day, everyone goes home, and the situation doesn’t really exist anymore.

I’m sure people take that trauma home with them. But the workplace—it’s a place you have to go back to with those same people, and it’s a real thing that continues to happen. It was just interesting. I’m sure our listeners all have moments like these where they’ve seen that instinct come out to do nothing.

Beaulieu: Well, right. And I think, unfortunately, like from the Human Resources perspective, it’s oftentimes … it’s like the HR person is the one who’s left to have the direct conversation, and those conversations are hard. But I think it’s to the extent that you can empower the other employees and managers in the organization to learn skills of intervention and apply them before really bad things take place.

That’s all we’re talking about. Right? Because I think the other reason that it’s helpful, again, going back to that concept of spectrum of behavior, is that when you have those kinds … you learn a lot about somebody when you intervene earlier rather than later, right?

So, it’s like, you learn who has problems with boundaries, you learn who has problems with power, you learn people who can’t manage conflict, and you learn people who can’t take no for an answer. So, I mean, I think there’s a lot of things that you can learn.

If somebody gives you feedback on your behavior, and you throw a tantrum about it and start spewing out a bunch of insults or behave in a way that’s really unproductive, then I would rather find that out before you’ve caused serious harm or put your organization in, potentially, a legal situation because of the way that you’ve acted.

Davis: Yeah. That’s a really good point. You don’t want someone that has a propensity to explode in situations.

Beaulieu: Right.

Davis: You say that this can be done in an hour or 90 minutes?

Beaulieu: A bystander intervention—that’s only one of many skills that you need in order to provide and respond to sexual harassment.

Davis: But it’s the idea that you can act out these things, and just the experience of having said it in a practiced way—done one of your interventions—is something that you can then call upon more successfully afterward in the real world.

Beaulieu: Yes. I think you can get people to a basic level of understanding and skill around it. Right? So, what I described to you with what I did on the train is I basically directed an effective bystander intervention scene by activating the right kinds of people on the train.

So, you would need to invest more time and energy to training people up to that level, and you wouldn’t need everybody in the organization to have that kind of skill, but you’d want some of them to have it so that if they’re witnessing something … it’s like, you also just don’t want one person to always be the person who’s intervening. That’s exhausting and not fair for that person. You want everyone to have a basic level of skill, and you want some people to be really good at it.

Davis: A lot of the things that people do when they’re sexually harassing people are straight up illegal. I mean, they’ve broken a law, and yet the response is always, “How do we handle this from an employment scenario?” And I’ll give you an example. It’s a pretty insane one.

I was supposed to be interviewing a crisis manager, and she was late for the meeting because someone had called her with hopes that she would talk to the CEO of this organization who, during a sensitivity training, sexually assaulted the woman giving the training in front of all the leaders of the organization.

Beaulieu: Oh, like groped the person?

Davis: Yeah.

Beaulieu: Great. (sarcasm implied here)

Davis: Which is just unbelievable that it could happen at all. When the HR person took that man aside and said, “You can’t do that,” he said, “Well, there wasn’t anything to grab,” like suggesting she had small breasts that it was OK for him to touch them in front of everybody. And meanwhile, that’s a direct crime with 13 witnesses. Why is it that these people aren’t being prosecuted? They’re calling someone to fix it. This guy probably isn’t even able to be fixed. Meanwhile, a crime has been committed with witnesses in front of everybody.

Beaulieu: Yes. There’s a lot of ways to unpack this one, Jim, so let’s think about the way that would be the most effective for your listeners. So, what we know—and again, if you’re thinking about sexual harassment, which includes anything up to sexual assault and rape in a workplace environment—the estimates are 25% to 85% depending on your industry and company. Up to 75% of incidents are just not reported.

So, thinking about the reasons why people don’t report are actually similar to the reasons why sexual harassment takes place. Right? It’s that we are not doing our part to create environments of safety, trust, and respect. There are a ton of really good reasons why somebody wouldn’t report. One of them would be just fear of professional or personal retaliation to … and I think it’s, as we recently saw with the Victoria Secret case, retaliation is not an irrational fear. It’s a pretty rational fear.

Davis: Yes, it really is.

Beaulieu: There’s also just like the shame and the social stigma that comes with it, that desire to be like, “Well, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.” Again, there’s a lot of reasons, and some of them are individual, and some of them are cultural-based, right? If there were 15 people in the room, there were 15 people who could have intervened in that situation, but instead, we focus on the one person who perpetrated the act, and then we focus on the person who was the victim to the act, and we say, “Well, why aren’t they filing a report?” And I’m like, “Well, that incident made everybody feel unsafe.”

And so, when we think about what are the strategies that we have in place? It’s like everybody was really silent. Right? And I would also guess that, with this in particular, it wasn’t that this was a person who every other thing that they’ve ever said in their life or workplace context was safe and respectable. I’m going to just go out on a limb and guess that that’s not the case, meaning that there were likely opportunities to intervene earlier that were missed opportunities.

Davis: Yeah. And I don’t have a lot of insight into it, and I’m never going to get it because now it’s a legal matter that they’re handling. But my understanding is that they were in that sensitivity training because of the guy—because of the CEO.

Beaulieu: Right. Well, then where’s this board? I mean, where are his friends? Does he not have any friends? Does he not have a board of directors who’s holding him accountable who recognizes the impact of his behavior on the financial future of this organization? I have lots of questions because I think the other thing is that if the 15 people in the room were his employees, he was the one with the most power. Yeah. We can’t wait for incidents to take place before we start talking about these kinds of things.

Davis:  Many of these matters that you see, particularly when it comes to legal compliance, it becomes an internal company matter when it’s really a criminal matter, and somehow this separation between “Well, these things are crimes when they happen outside of the workplace, but they’re not really crimes when it happened inside the workplace.”

Beaulieu: Yeah. I appreciate that perspective. I think it’s also just, thinking about it through the lens of the person that this happened to … if the goal is to restore safety and respect first and foremost for the person who is impacted, I think this is actually, what you’re speaking to is one of the really unspoken tensions that exists in Human Resources, right?

Because if that individual who experienced sexual assault in that room did not want to report, from a survivor perspective, it’s well within their right, and I think it’s the most important thing you do to somebody who’s just had such a complete loss of control in their life is to give them back as much control as you possibly can.

However, as you’re saying, is that, and particularly … I’m not a lawyer, but I think based on my experience and understanding of the law, there is a little bit of two ways of thinking about this, where it’s like, it is an incident that takes place between two people; it is also an organization that has a legal responsibility to create a safe workplace for their employees.

When those two things are in tension with each other—so for example, if a person was sexually assaulted but they don’t actually want to report it, and then the company is like, “Well, what do we do as an organization in order to keep ourselves within the law?” those things are not always the same thing.

And it can go other ways. It’s like, you could have somebody who wants to go file a report with the police, but the company doesn’t want to cooperate. You could have a person that simply just goes straight to the EEOC to file a report and skips the company process because they recognize that it’s not going to be helpful.

It’s like once incidents take place, things get really messy really fast, so our opportunity, though, is to be looking at incidents with not just a compliance and follow-up perspective but also looking at them from a prevention perspective.

The one that you picked is a particularly tricky one because it’s involving the leader of an organization, but let’s say that that was more of like your senior sales manager; really, it’s “OK. Well, how do I look in the mirror and say, ‘What could we have done to stop this? And why don’t we start doing that now to stop it from happening again?'”

Davis:  Absolutely. A lot of our audience members are in medium- to small-sized businesses that don’t necessarily have the resources or even just the organizational energy to get even basic initiatives off the ground. Particularly, I’m thinking of people that have been thrown into an HR role; maybe they don’t even have an HR title, but they’re doing that work. What advice would you have for people like that that are looking to prevent sexual harassment in their workplace, and how do they get started?

Beaulieu: Honestly, that’s one of the main reasons that I wrote this book because I think there’s very little out there that provides that high-level framework of like, “What does an effective approach to skills-based sexual harassment work look like?” Because I think, typically, organizations think, “Well, oh, OK, we’re required to do some kind of compliance training; we need to have a policy, so we’re going to share that policy with people. And then we’ve done what we need to do on sexual harassment.”

And the other thing is that I think that there’s a myth and misperception that HR needs to own all of it. So it’s like, if HR is on the corner of your desk, what you need is you need a way to scale up your entire organization and empower them to skill themselves up. So, essentially, it’s like the five steps of a skills-based approach is like, one, you want to start with compliance, but you don’t want to end there.

It’s like letting people understand that there is a framework to thinking about this and that you’ve got to do the compliance part because it’s required, and it gives you the tools that you need to hold people accountable. I think the place where HR can be helpful is also creating some transparency around what reporting processes look like and what the HR investigation black box is like at your particular organization.

I think too many organizations don’t share that, and then an incident happens, and then that’s not the right time to share it. And so, then, it just really has an impact on trust within the organization because no matter what the outcome is, if people don’t trust the process, then the organization is left in a place of not feeling safe. Everyone. So, one is like, start with compliance, but don’t end there.

Two is do a little bit of assessment around experience in a broad range of uncomfortable conversations related to sexual harassment prevention and response. On my website, I’ve got an online and a downloadable survey that you can do that’s essentially just … “Don’t go in and try to teach a group of people French unless how many of them speak French and to what degree,” or, “Don’t teach them algebra if they don’t know how to add.” So it’s just get a base. You would not teach any other skill without doing some kind of baseline assessment, so do a baseline assessment on it.

Then I think it’s really introducing people to the idea that this is uncomfortable work, but it’s like, uncomfortable conversations is a core leadership and management skill that you’re going to need to manage diverse teams, right? It’s not HR’s job to manage your team. It’s your job to manage your team, and this is a skill that you’re going to need.

The last two steps are really about investing in some practice, so that’s doing scenarios that aren’t scenarios where it’s like, “Is this or is this not sexual harassment?” but it’s scenarios like what we’ve been talking about. So, one is certainly around intervention. A second one would be around handling a disclosure, whether it’s a disclosure or something that took place in the workplace or a disclosure of somebody sharing an experience that they’d had as a child or in college. I think that’s something that more and more happens in the workplace.

And then, it’s changing your habits, right? So, how can you proactively, as an organization and as a manager, start conversations about healthy workplace relationships, appropriate boundaries, managing conflict, and navigating power dynamics? How do you start those conversations before they become a problem, rather than waiting for them to become a problem and then having a bunch of less productive conversations afterward, after people are already in a state of not feeling safe?

Davis: Great. Thanks so much. I think that’s all the time that we have right now.But thank you again for taking the time to join us today.

Beaulieu: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Davis: Absolutely. Listeners, we are always interested in suggestions that you might have for what we should cover next. Feel free to reach out to me at if you have any thoughts or concerns or if you just want to say hi. Thanks for listening. This is Jim Davis with HR Works.

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