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When a joke goes too far – The importance of impact vs intention

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timeTo is an organisation that focuses on providing regular training for agencies and employees as well as support for sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Within the training supplied by timeTo there is emphasis on the intention behind the words/actions vs what impact it has. For example, when a supposed joke crossed the line and how individuals saying “it wasn’t my intention” robs people of their power to speak up.

Today, Katrina Urban, timeTo spokesperson and NABS Culture Change & Wellbeing Services Project Manager, to discuss the difference between impact and intention and how it can make it difficult to report issues as some get swept aside as a ‘joke’ or ‘agency culture’. 

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In 2018 following the #MeToo movement, timeTo was formed and we conducted research within our industry on the true state of sexual harassment at the present time. The results were startling. Not only had 26% of respondents been sexually harassed whilst working in advertising and marketing, but 72% of those had been harassed more than once.

Women, especially women of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community, are disproportionately impacted by sexual harassment, this lead us to consult with our endorsing companies and the idea of creating training with experts in the field came to fruition.

The timeTo training launched January 2020, we used the research as a base to reinforce the cultural shift in facts and examples based on real life scenarios. What came through heavily was the lack of understanding in society about the difference between impact vs intention when it comes to sexual harassment.

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As individuals we are wholly responsible for our own actions and words and the impact they have on others, I like to believe that most people are not deliberately setting out to cause harm to another, however this certainly can and does happen far too often, it is not a past issue it is very much present.

What is comfortable for you may be deeply uncomfortable for another person, saying to a colleague “I love that top on you” could be intended as a passing compliment, however the other person could feel that you are in fact drawing attention to their body, sexualising them or overstepping a personal and professional boundary. Now your intention may have been simply to compliment their attire, however the impact is that someone feels uncomfortable and in that action the power balance shifts.

An industry friend recently attended the training and shared with me after that when people compliment what she is wearing it makes her feel very self-conscious and aware of being viewed in a potentially sexual way. I was proud that she felt able to speak up and encouraged her to share this with colleagues and set a personal boundary. We are all individuals and our boundaries are as unique as we are.

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We often hear people saying “you can’t say anything these days” the fact is you can say anything you want. So long as you are prepared to be held accountable for the impact of your words and actions. As children, if we cause harm without intention we are expected to apologise and acknowledge what has happened and yet somewhere along the lines that accountability disappears in adulthood when we should be displaying role model behaviours for our colleagues, friends and clients.

The timeTo sexual harassment awareness training highlights the difference between the unethical and illegal in accordance to UK law, empowers individuals to speak up and report, clearly covers all types of sexual harassment from sexual assault and rape to unwanted and inappropriate messaging and my most hated word at present – banter.

The next time you want to crack a joke, stop and think is this really workplace appropriate? Want to flirt with someone who hasn’t showed that the feeling is mutual, stop, have I respected their boundaries? Want to comment on someone’s clothing, unless you plan on buying the item do you need to do this? Feel it’s your place to comment on someone’s sex life? It’s not, full stop.

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The impact of sexual harassment can be lifelong, only by working together to educate, change our behaviour and create lasting change can we really eradicate sexual harassment from advertising and marketing.

The feedback we gather from attendees frequently states that the knowledge that impact trump's intention was the most important lesson learnt. Your organisation’s HR policy on sexual harassment should clearly cover this, a template can be found in the timeTo toolkit should your organisation not have one.

I urge every business to lead by example and provide this training for your staff, not only will you fulfil your legal obligation to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace but you will clearly display that your organisation takes a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and the lasting impact it causes.

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