By Katie Day • May 30, 2019
I had the distinct pleasure of getting an early copy of Lauren Stiller Rikleen’s new book The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace. This book is truly a must read for anyone in the workforce! The research Lauren shares is surprising and compelling and her tips for both employees and companies are spot on.
Although I was not expecting to, I found myself personally relating to the experiences and behaviors studied by this book. It goes far beyond the typical sexual harassment discussion and dives into many other prevalent and problematic workplace behaviors, like bullying, that are not as often discussed but are so important.
I recently chatted with Lauren to understand more about what motivated her to do this research, what she hopes to see come from the research, and what she found to be most shocking. Here’s what she had to say:
Katie Day: What got you interested in this research?
Lauren Stiller Rikleen: I’ve always been interested in workplace culture issues, diversity and inclusion issues and I’ve done a lot of writing on related topics throughout my career. Last year I partnered with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts to help them do a survey on negative behaviors in law firm work environments. We created a survey that asked questions around a whole range of behaviors, from outright sexual harassment and assault to bullying to inappropriate jokes and remarks. We were trying to understand what kind of behaviors are taking place in law firm environments and what do people do when those behaviors occur.
In writing the report for this study, I was so struck by the extent to which these negative behaviors have occurred and continue to occur over decades based on the overriding fear that people had with reporting and sharing their experiences with others. I became very interested in exploring further the relationship between silence in the face of terrible behaviors and the power imbalance and fears that drive that silence. In order to be able to change, we have to be able to break the silence and that is really the focus of the book.
KD: Did any statistics really stand out to you?
LSR: In the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts study we asked whether their current firm had an internal process for reporting behaviors of concern. What was shocking was that nearly 40% answered that they didn’t know. That suggests that too many firms are doing a really poor job of having in place and telling people about systems that are supposed to protect them. If you don’t even know if your firm has a system for reporting, what does that say about the prioritization of addressing misconduct in that workplace?
KD: Why is it so important to talk about a wider range of negative behaviors and not just sexual harassment?
LSR: It all ties back to how we create respectful and inclusive work environments because sexual harassment is generally the tip of the iceberg. Workplaces that actually have sexual harassment are more likely to have a wide range of bad behaviors that they’ve been ignoring, so if we only address one component of a far greater problem, we’re not really solving the workplace problem. The reason it should matter is that if workers are fearful on the job it impact their efforts, it impacts how they feel about coming to work every day. It’s important to see these issues are all related and all impacting the type of environment that people face day in and day out when they show up for work.
KD: How are high profile cases about sexual harassment affecting the discussion?
LSR: I think any attention is important. The problem right now is that we’re not pushing back strongly enough against the backlash that we are seeing around these issues. I’m sure you see the articles in which people talk about false accusations and statements that are made that undercut the efforts to make people feel comfortable with reporting. We have people enduring horrific circumstances and remaining silent, so the challenge is to push back on a false notion that people are over-reporting.
KD: Your book talks about the impacts of the work environment on the employees, but also on the impact to employers. What’s one tip you have for companies to help create a better work environment?
LSR: In the book I give many recommendations about what needs to happen, but I’d say that it probably has to be framed as a broader-based approach. For example, you must have the right policies and processes in place, but if you don’t follow up correctly or people don’t feel safe don’t feel safe in using those policies and processes then it’s not effective. It’s all interrelated. You need to have policies as well as their appropriate follow up to ensure that people who speak up are supported and that there are safeguards in place to protect against retaliation, not only in the short term, but in the long term as well. And then there are training challenges. Unconscious bias training is an important part of this, as is bystander intervention training. I talk a lot in the book about the role of bystanders and how we can better address that.
KD: This type of harassment is not confined to a certain profession, but do you feel there are certain issues more prevalent in law?
LSR: One of the bigger challenges for our profession is that there is this expectation, particularly in a partnership, of autonomy. As a result, the lack of accountability built into partnerships can exacerbate these issues and make it hard to resolve. Law firm partners are not used to being held accountable for their behavior. There are no metrics in place at most firms by which to measure partner performance with respect to managing a team or how they treat other people or whether they experience higher rates of attrition in their practice group. That dynamic impacts the way organizations address misconduct and can make it harder to create a culture of respect.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, founder and president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is a nationally recognized speaker, consultant, and trainer focusing on creating a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace environment. A former law firm equity partner, Lauren was selected by her peers to appear in Best Lawyers in America for 20 years, and has also been recognized in Chambers USA America’s Leading Business Lawyers and Massachusetts Super Lawyers.
Lauren is also the author of: You Raised Us, Now Work With Us, Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams; Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law and Ladder Down: Success Strategies For Lawyers From Women Who Will Be Hiring, Reviewing, And Promoting You.
Among her many community and professional leadership roles, Lauren is a former president of the Boston Bar Association, former member of the ABA Board of Governors, and former chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights & Social Justice. She currently sits on the ABA Journal Board of Editors and Co-Chairs the Women’s Caucus. Among her awards, Lauren received the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession in 2017. She is the author of more than 175 articles.
A more detailed bio can be found at https://www.rikleeninstitute.com/about-lauren.