Encourage Courage


“Does the election mean that it’s now OK for me to be sexually harassed at work?”

After 30 years in corporate HR, I now coach other executives. And even with all that history, I was stunned when one of my female clients told me that several women have asked her that since election day. “Of course not!”, I said, but when another woman had the same concern the next day, I had to think about the question more seriously.

Sexual harassment – along with discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, family status or disability – remains illegal, and no serious legislator has suggested decriminalizing it. But when women – or people of color, disability, different religions, etc. – are mocked and disrespected by someone who is elected president, it makes sense to question the value of legal protections if sixty million voters can look the other way.

Thanks to mentors like Irene Natividad, founder and president of the Global Summit of Women, I’ve worked for many years to promote women’s economic empowerment. I’m not sure I count as a real “feminist” but I’m certainly a happy “capitalist”. I work for women’s economic strength and parity because I believe it’s good for business, for women and for men.

Companies of all sizes have clear policies about sexual harassment and discrimination. In most of those companies, the commitment goes beyond a policy statement into the core of the organization: its values, its culture, its principles of leadership. But even in the best-intentioned company, there may be people who violate either the letter of the law or the spirit of respect that it represents. These violations can be overt or subtle, masked with humor or inadvertent. They can be small slights or blatant discrimination. Now, more than ever, they can’t be allowed or we risk eroding those hard won protections for women and minorities and damaging our businesses in doing so.

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  • Create a personal “zero tolerance policy” about demeaning speech – don’t “let it go” or laugh it off. If someone speaks offensively, speak up. It’s scary to speak up. And so necessary.
  • Require respect and civility around you. Disagreement and divergent opinions underpin innovations and great businesses but these debates call for an inclusive and open tone. My grandfather used to say, “it’s fine to call a spade a spade, but you don’t have to call it a ‘damn shovel’”.
  • Model the behavior you want to see in others. None of us is perfect but this is the time to raise the bar, to raise your standards of tolerance, to raise your willingness to listen openly to others.
  • Encourage courage. Everyone needs someone to talk to. There are some problems that can’t be solved until you’ve talked them through with a trusted advisor. When you’re the person others are talking to, don’t make it a gripe session but promote productive action. Whining never solved anything. Help people find practical solutions and the courage they need to enact them.
  • If you’re in a corporate setting, talk with Human Resources. There are professionals in there to listen to concerns, investigate complaints and help frame responses. That’s what they’re trained to do. Use them.[/message] [su_spacer]

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”  As thoughtful business people, interested in successful companies, it is up to us to ensure that our organizations remain places where people thrive based on their abilities, and that everyone has a fair opportunity to contribute. Each and every one of us can make our organizations places where this happens — for all people, all the time.


Margaretta Noonan
Margaretta Noonan
While still a senior executive at a global company, Margaretta Noonan started asking herself, “Am I All There?” After several years of exploring the topic of employee engagement – her own included; Margaretta co-founded ngage, a technology-enabled solution that creates a continuous connection between employees and managers about the issues that are critical to organizational success;. Margaretta spent 30 years in Human Resources and senior leadership with global Fortune 500 companies in the retail and professional services industries. Knowing that a company is only ever as strong as the talent inside it – in addition to ngage, Margaretta heads a woman-owned consulting business, noonanWorks (, dedicated to working at the intersection of employee engagement / customer engagement and financial results.

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  1. Interesting article and interesting to reflect back on it now that we have had the change in leadership. Although I have no statistics to prove it, it seems that there has been more awareness to the issues that surround the topics in this article. The first step to any problem is admitting there is one. More need to admit there is one and then we can begin to solve the challenges we all face. More need to find the courage within themselves to speak up. Thank you for having that courage and the continued encouragement your words can give others to break their silence.

  2. Margaretta, while I certainly value your right to voice your opinion and viewpoint as vigorously as you’d like on the current politically-correct narrative in our country , I also value the opportunity to challenge the perspective of the following statement, which was made in your article: “But when women – or people of color, disability, different religions, etc. – are mocked and disrespected by someone who is elected president, it makes sense to question the value of legal protections if sixty million voters can look the other way.” What if a few, some, many, or even the majority of the “sixty million voters” did not, in fact, “look the other way”! What if a few, some, many, or even the majority of these “sixty million voters” were looking at the equally repulsive aspects of other major party’s candidate? What if chronic lying in the face of reality and truth (facts), perpetually corrupt behavioral ethics, or disgusting and ongoing support by a female spouse of her male spouse’s ongoing, known, and well-documented sexual exploitation of women was the catalyst for “sixty million voters” choosing to vote the other way – the way that differs from the narrative you present? What if, just what if, the reasons for these “sixty million voters” voting the other way was a completely different perspective on the same sin? What if, I respectfully ask?

    • Thanks for your comment, Delaney. Without debating the merits of either candidate, I think we can agree that demeaning, objectifying language has no place at work and we need to remain vigilant to ensure it’s not tolerated. Being treated as a valued professional without regard to gender, race, disability or other factors is a right that must be safe guarded, not taken for granted

  3. Margaretta – As a husband and father of 3 daughters, I completely agree with everything you state in this article. But I am forced to wonder how anyone could believe that with the election of President-elect Trump, all the laws regarding sexual harassment and discrimination would be tossed out of the window. Surely, the reason the question was asked was because the environment where they currently work is on the edge of being inappropriate or they are allowing the scare tactics we hear from the media to get into their heads – for we have come way to far to ever allow the behaviors of the past, which were wrong in every possible way, to once again be considered acceptable. Your points make it so clear – demand respect for yourself and for your fellow employees – shine light on the bullies who may try to use their position to put others down so that they are totally exposed (because there will always be bullies) – and be consistent in ensuring everyone in your organization treats each other with the respect and dignity you want for yourself.

    Thanks for sharing your post.

    • Thanks for commenting, Len — part of the challenge is that even with all the current legal protections, workplace harassment and discrimination is still widespread. We just lived through a campaign that saw unprecedented levels of rancor and vulgarity. I believe that the fear comes from, “if it’s ok to say that on TV in front of millions of people, what might be said to me privately with no witnesses around?” And you’re right — this is about shining a light on the bullies and saying, “no — that’s not OK!”

    • Just going back to the roots of how I was taught the work world should be…thanks for being one of my great teachers!

  4. Certainly you are right, Margaretta. However in our quest to improve we can sometimes over react. A recent case as an example:

    An executive complimented a female worker on her new hair style and said it complimented the shape of her face. Totally innocent and meant to be a compliment and an acknowledgement of his awareness of the change. She took that comment as a come on and filed a suit for sexual harassment.

    An extreme situation? Perhaps, but such occurrences hamper civility and good manners in the work place.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ken — it helps reinforce my point. On its face, with just the words reported, that does sound like an extreme situation. But we don’t know the tone, the gestures, the context that surrounded the words which may complete justify the reaction. No one should have to feel uncomfortable about things like that at work. But there are remedies far less dramatic than a lawsuit to address them. Speak up. Say, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make comments like that.” Or talk to your boss or human resources. In a time when crude, debasing remarks are justified as “locker room talk”, it’s up to all of us to be vigilant in maintaining the civility and good manners in the work place you call for. The essence of civility is politeness and respect, an atmosphere where everyone is comfortable.