Addressing and Preventing Workplace Sexual Harassment: It’s About Leadership

Is it really all so new?

Recent, well-publicized revelations about patterns of harmful sexual behavior against women in Hollywood and Washington, and in workplaces large and small, have lawyers, human resources professionals and corporate managers scrambling to find ways address and prevent workplace harassment and retaliation. Again.

Women have emerged from their self- or contractually-imposed forced-silence to bravely share horrific accounts of sexual misconduct by powerful leaders in entertainment, media, business and government, in hopes of effectuating lasting cultural change.  Again.

Local and national surveys show that harassment is a pervasive problem in the workplace. Again.

How are we possibly here, 26 years after harassment and retaliation claims spiked after Anita Hill, and followed by decades of workplace complaints, investigations and terminations, mandatory training and retraining of managers and employees as part of most standard company operating procedures, and numerous examples of high-profile falls-from-grace?

In 1991, the big reveal was that “sexual harassment isn’t about sex, it’s about power.” 2017’s seemingly big reveal?  “Sexual harassment isn’t about sex, it’s about power.

Of course, being able to engage in offensive or unwelcome sexual activity, conceal misconduct through the threat of retaliation (real or perceived), and protect bad actors through legal and other mechanisms is about power. But what we are not focusing enough on is leadership, not just from our executives, but leadership at all levels. And how are employers empowering leaders to drive cultural change and accountability?

How do we fix this?

Over the past few weeks, experts have presented examples of how to effectuate change, including, among other things:

  • Mandatory training and re-training on sexual harassment prevention and reporting
  • Ensuring Human Resources is a “safe place” to make a complaint, conduct an investigation and influence disciplinary decisions
  • Implementing avenues for complaints other than through HR, even through an outside, contracted investigative authority
  • Passing legislation to limit the use of mandatory arbitration agreements and inclusion of non-disclosure agreements in settlements
  • Corporate policies prohibiting a male and female employee from being in the same room without a third party
  • Outlawing off-site events, particularly those that include serving alcohol

Are employees convinced these options will lead to change?Customized training, enforceable policies and improved legal protections can be excellent tools to support much-needed cultural change when it comes to addressing and preventing sexual harassment. But you cannot build a prevention strategy without first investigating, discussing and understanding what, if any, threats to a culture of respect may exist in your workplace and why they exist. Note two articles from this past Sunday’s New York Times articles entitled, “Men at Work Wonder if They Overstepped With Women, Too,” and “When You Experience Sexual Harassment at Work.” The potential collateral damage from misplaced or inapplicable “cures” is a workplace filled with inherent fear, distrust, and confusion, all terrible things for your company’s bottom line.

It’s About Leadership

Indeed, what experts seem to be missing is that employers should start by providing opportunities for leaders to step up and diagnose the specific problems in a workplace. Has your leadership openly discussed the issue? What suspicions need to be investigated appropriately? Have you conducted climate surveys, focus groups and individual interviews with employees about your culture? Are there any patterns in recent complaints or investigations? Do employees really feel that they have a safe outlet to discuss concerns free from the threat of retaliation? Once the heart of the problem (if any) is identified, it is based upon that foundation that you can develop a strategy for improvement/change, supported by any number of effective tools customized to address the problem.

Leadership also must include being willing to make the hard choice of disciplining – including terminating employment – the “superstar” harasser. Indeed, there are amazing examples of how a company singled out a high-performing, seemingly irreplaceable employee for misconduct, and the result was greatly improved employee morale and productivity. Notably, according to a recent Harvard Business School study, it actually costs a company significantly more to retain the high-performing toxic performer than it does to replace him or her.  Much like a company uses a culture of regulatory compliance to build the respect of customers, experts and authorities, a company can use its culture of respect as a competitive advantage.

What steps are you taking to lead a workplace culture where sexual harassment isn’t tolerated? If you are a senior company leader, what steps are you taking to empower others to lead a culture of respect and civility? If you don’t have a clear and urgent answer to these questions, with a true focus on tracking the problem, planning and delivering on a strategy for change, and holding your company accountable, I guess we’ll be exploring the problem in 26 years. Again.

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