Fostering a safe workplace environment with Heather Krentler

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MODERN HEALTHCARE: Now, let’s dive into our conversation with Heather Krentler. She’s sharing her insight on how companies can support women and foster a safe environment for them to thrive.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Hello, Heather. How are you doing?

HEATHER KRENTLER: I’m doing fantastic today. How are you?

MODERN HEALTHCARE: I’m doing really well. Thank you so much for making the time to answer these questions about this important topic. So, before we get into our discussion, I’m just going to read a couple of data points to frame the issue that we’re talking about.

First of all, Modern Healthcare had a survey that revealed that 26% of women healthcare leaders have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Another data point is that 58% of female surgeons, 25% of nurses, and 50% of female medical students have reported being sexually harassed on the job. 90% of employees who experience harassment never actually file a formal complaint. And 19% of women healthcare leaders say promotions at their organizations are based on favoritism and not merit — a potential subtle form of gender discrimination and hostility. Does any of that surprise you?

HEATHER KRENTLER: I wish I said that it did, but I’m afraid not.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: So, let’s talk about your tenure in human resources. During your time in human resources, how would you say the support for women has evolved? And what have you seen as the biggest shifts to help women feel emotionally and physically safe in their workplace?

HEATHER KRENTLER: I transitioned my career into HR back in 2006, which incidentally, two things unfolded in our world at that time. Although unbeknownst to me, that was the first reference to Me Too on Myspace by Me Too movement founder, Tarana Burke. I believe that’s also the same year that Twitter launched. And I feel like that was pivotal for all workers in HR and anyone in management. Because women and men alike — people who found themselves victimized or harassed, particularly in a sexual nature — had both a common language emerging in society, as well as a common medium through which to share their stories.

I think that when you think about victimhood in any form, at its core is being silenced. And what happened in and around 2006 was the antithesis of silence. So, I think that for HR, what I have seen emerge in my earlier years — there was sort of this focus on how do we define what is and isn’t appropriate? And that absolutely played a good role at that time. But what has evolved is now the conversation is, how do we respond to behaviors, and how do we cultivate cultures where people can talk about these behaviors, address these behaviors, and not be silenced? So, I think that has been the biggest thing that I’ve seen shift.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Wow, so it’s just opened up the conversation a bit more. Not so much stigma around raising your hand and saying, “Hey, this has happened to me.”


MODERN HEALTHCARE: So, it’s clear that the Me Too movement still has traction, the conversation is still very much going. For our women listeners, how do you think women can equip themselves to deal with hostility in the workplace? Whether it’s an isolated incident or whether it’s just the culture of their workplace.

HEATHER KRENTLER: This is a tough one for me, because when we think about the entire landscape of harassment and of, God forbid, sexual assault, there are so many different ways I would respond, right? If we’re talking about a severe isolated incident, I’m going to have one reaction to that. If we’re talking about repeated occurrences, a pattern of behavior that is creating a hostile work environment, I’m going to have another set of counsel.

It really has to be aligned with what that individual is going through. And again, I say individual, because it does affect men and women alike. As I think back on the broad spectrum of situations that I have coached men and women through in my HR career, the first place I start is this concept of what is unwelcome versus welcome behavior. Most conversation around this topic focuses on defining behaviors, and we end up playing these videos in our mind that we saw during onboarding of, well, it wasn’t quite that or it wasn’t quite this. And we say well, that doesn’t fit in the story that I was taught was inappropriate, but it still feels unwelcome to me. And so, if you can help someone identify, it’s not about whether or not it meets someone else’s definition of unwelcome — it is about whether or not it was unwelcome to you. That’s the right first place to start.

I’m going to just bucket us for a minute. If it is something that is a pattern of behavior, then the first step is always make sure that you are clearly communicating that it is unwelcome. We get ourselves into trouble when we tell ourselves that everyone has the same definition of that, and when we tell ourselves that someone should assume that it isn’t welcome. We also convince ourselves oftentimes that things will go very badly for us if we point out that it is unwelcome. I hate to say this, but so many times people say, well, maybe it’s not that bad. Well, it’s bad for you. Don’t worry about someone else’s definition, this is about your definition and how this feels to you, and it is unwelcome.

If you’re questioning yourself, then go to someone you trust. The other word that we talk a lot about is “reasonable.” I think I’m reasonable, but I think everyone thinks they’re reasonable. I think that, again, it’s a dangerous game when you assume that everyone has to have the same definitions that you do. So, find someone you trust. Doesn’t have to be even someone who is employed by the same employer. And share your experiences, talk through it, and if you continue to come back to the feeling of discomfort, then it really does need to be addressed.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Yeah. Define for yourself what is unwelcome, and be willing to communicate that if an unwelcome gesture or statement is made.

HEATHER KRENTLER: That’s right. The story I tell people is a little bit of the Emperor’s New Clothes. None of us wants to be walking around naked and not know it, and if someone is engaging in unwelcome behavior and they don’t know that it is unwelcome, they look like a fool. If you can give that person the gift of awareness — give them the opportunity to alter their behavior, hopefully permanently, so that they don’t run into the same situation again — that is a gift that I personally would want to be on the receiving end of. So, I try to reframe it for the person who’s coming to me with the concern.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Typically these incidences are framed as a man having this gesture toward a woman, but if women have different definitions of what is welcome —


MODERN HEALTHCARE: Giving that guy the awareness that this is not OK, is definitely helpful for him. I’m sure he would love to get that message, so that he can stop doing whatever he’s doing to put himself and his colleagues at risk.

HEATHER KRENTLER: That’s absolutely right. And you hit on a really important point by saying his colleagues. These behaviors are often part of cultural norms that evolve over time. And it just takes one person. If the offender is in a position of power — whether or not that power comes from their role, or whether or not that power comes from simply their social status within that group — once they gain that awareness, they can begin that shift of what is a norm in that group. And it can be very subtle, but powerful.

If in this case, we’re saying it’s a woman who is coming forward with this discomfort — let’s reclaim your power, first of all — and put yourself in the seat of a gift giver of that knowledge. That’s another way to help a woman understand that you are in a powerful position by being able to give this feedback. They are unaware, they are ignorant of something, and it is important that that be shared.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: And then, if you give that feedback and they don’t take it, you’ve been warned.

HEATHER KRENTLER: That’s right. We all want to be able to lay our heads down at night and feel that we’ve done the right thing each day. If you have to take a more serious response to behavior — a more assertive, perhaps even a legal response to behavior — you attempted a respectful, human-to-human form of feedback first. At that point, if they choose to disregard that, be belligerent toward it, and continue to engage in that behavior, you’ve done all that you can do. At that point, whatever the outcome is, is on them.

MID-SPONSOR MESSAGE: Before we continue our discussion, I’d like to again recognize Ontrak, the sponsor of today’s episode.
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Now, let’s get back to our discussion.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: If we were to take this insight and boil it down to maybe three steps, what should a woman do if she finds herself in a situation where the harassment maybe is more subtle? Maybe a guy doesn’t know, maybe a colleague doesn’t know — it still creates hostility for her. What are, sort of, those top three steps she should consider taking to address it?

HEATHER KRENTLER: I personally would reflect on, what is it about this behavior, that it is distasteful for me? Get very specific about it. Because when you give someone feedback of any form, you want to make sure that you can clearly articulate where the danger zone is. When you come in vague, wishy-washy, or you come in too concerned about how they might feel about the feedback, that is when you are not going to be heard. And so clarity is so important. So, get very clear about what your expectations of how you are to be treated are, and examples of when that didn’t happen that you were not OK with.

Ideally, if you get the opportunity in the moment, you hit the pause button in that conversation right then and there. And yes, it can be jarring, but that’s the most poignant moment. If you just say, “I’m gonna stop you right there. What you just said was offensive to me, and I ask that you not repeat that again.” And then you move right back into the conversation. You do not have to be aggressive, you need to be assertive and clear.

When you think about the energy, think about: You’re in a meeting and some loud noise happened outside of the conference room. It distracts you both, and you just say, “Did you just hear that? Oh, OK. Moving on.” Think of that energy. I’m calling attention to something. I’ve noted it, you now have noted it, and we move back to what we were trying to get done. If you are given the opportunity to do that, I find that approach to be the one that, as a first step, it avoids the shame component. If you address it in a way that does not give the person any grace or an opportunity to maintain their sense of self, you will get a very defensive, shame-based reaction. And very rarely can you have a healthy dialogue with someone when they are in that  mindset.

So, I really encourage that first step, but in terms of three steps, if you do not get that in-the-moment opportunity, schedule some time, ask to have a conversation, express that there is something that you would like to bring to their awareness. Assume ignorance. Assume they are not aware of this. That gives them that ability to come to the conversation with grace. If you’ve had the conversation and that behavior continues, you absolutely should go to a member of management or to HR. There has to be some mechanism in every company — if anyone is listening and you do not have this, please do set up multiple pathways for people to file complaints and to seek counsel.

When people come to me, one of the first questions I ask — depending on the severity of the situation — if it is something that is what I would consider less severe, I will give them the  option. Is this something that you would like me to coach you through, so that you can maintain your seat of power right now in this dynamic? Or is this something that you would like me to step in on your behalf and control?

Again, if you think about just that torch of power, I now have to take this from you at your request, but it leaves you on the sidelines. And sometimes just to be fair — because I know that there are listeners who have been in very severe situations — sometimes that is the only option. And there have been times where I have said, I’m taking it from here. But when you have the option to maintain that mutually respectful footing even though that other person is not being respectful, we’re going to assume they don’t know. And we’re going to give them that opportunity to learn.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: We talked about the importance of feedback and how that is a gift, especially if it’s a male colleague who may not know the impact of their statements or their behavior. Men still hold the majority of leadership positions in most industries, including healthcare. So, can you talk a little bit about what role men play in ensuring that their workplaces are comfortable for women to flourish, making sure women feel heard if they need to confront someone about sexual harassment?

HEATHER KRENTLER: Absolutely. I think that men especially, but women leaders as well, I think it’s really important that commitment to a safe workplace in all of its forms has to start from the top. Leaders need to seriously consider what kind of a culture they have fostered when it comes to social interactions, and what kind of an example they themselves as leaders set.

The other big thing for leaders to consider is, like I mentioned earlier, pathways. HR, of course, will be there, but having pathways for women, especially with other female leaders in the organization who may have experienced similar things either at their organization or prior organizations — to come back to our topic of social norms. Every workplace has a different culture. So, is this normal here, is this uncommon? If it’s normal, is my interpretation of it accurate, does it match your experiences? How have you managed through this? I think that is always to be encouraged.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: Absolutely. For women leaders who are aspiring to even higher positions in the C­-suite, they’ll be managing teams of men and women, and these issues may come up. What advice would you give to these aspiring women leaders about how to address these situations?

HEATHER KRENTLER: Always, always listen and truly hear the person coming to you. If we’re going to use these terms, that is true of both the victim and the victimizer. As a leader, you should ensure that that person coming to you feels safe with you, that you are not making judgments around their observations, that you are not telling them how they should or should not feel about a situation, that you are treating it as if it is exactly what it is, which is a behavior that we are seeking to alter.

As much as we would love to think we can, we can only influence people’s hearts and minds, we cannot change them for them. But we can change people’s behaviors and what is accepted in the workplace. So, if that person is coming to you with a complaint, listen with empathy, help them maintain their sense of power, give them language to discover what the behavior is, exactly, that they want to see changed. And then with the person engaging in that behavior, same thing. Treat them with respect, assume that they are ignorant, and give them the tools to alter a behavior. It’s that key difference between speaking to someone in the context of this is who you are, versus this is what you do. If I speak to you as this is who you are, I’m going to elicit shame in you, guilt, defense, possibly even rage. If I simply speak to you, though, as this is what you have done, and here’s what you can do differently — while there could still be some of those elements, they will be significantly less severe.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: That’s a great way to think of it. Addressing them as a person and addressing the behavior versus doing, sort of, almost a character attack.

HEATHER KRENTLER: Yes. We put people in a bucket and then they are branded, and every action is now perceived through that brand. It’s a horrible thing. Again, as leaders, have empathy for everyone who is part of a situation like this.

MODERN HEALTHCARE: That’s great. Thank you so much for giving these tips on how to navigate these environments. Much appreciated.

HEATHER KRENTLER: Thank you for the opportunity, it was an absolute pleasure to speak with you.

OUTRO COMMENTS: The #MeToo movement matters for both men and women and in all career fields, including healthcare. So, thank you, Heather Krentler, for sharing that amazing insight.

We’d also like to again thank this episode’s sponsor, Ontrak.

Again, I’m your host, Kadesha Smith, CEO of CareContent. We help health systems reach their target audiences through digital marketing that focuses on the right content.

Look for more episodes of Next Up at, or subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or your preferred podcatcher. Thank you for listening.

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