Not since 1991, when Anita Hill testified before Congress to detail a lurid account of sexual harassment from former boss Clarence Thomas (who went on to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice nonetheless) has the nation been so consumed with the sexual misconduct of powerful men. But not just one powerful man – this time, these allegations have been leveled against Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Sen. Al Franken, Dustin Hoffman, Brett Rattner, Garrison Keillor, Judge Roy Moore, Richard Dreyfuss, Charlie Rose, Rep. John Conyers, Matt Lauer, and the President of the United States.
We seem to be experiencing a cultural moment where – for the first time, perhaps – the women and men who are coming forward with these allegations are not themselves put on trial. As a result, many victims of sexually inappropriate behavior are willing to share their stories, gain a sense of closure, and pursue justice. For the first time, the statistics we’ve all heard (one in four women and one in six men have experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes) are connected to human faces and lived experiences.
Most of the stories that are receiving national attention involve celebrities from the worlds of journalism, entertainment, and politics; after all, these men are famous, and their downfalls are a matter of public interest. However, with every new revelation, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are endemic to many workplaces, and probably exist to a similar degree in any large organization.
So what should organizational leaders do, especially in the midst of this national conversation?
- Allow victims to safely report abuse. Anyone who has experienced any form of sexual assault or harassment should be encouraged to speak about it. Reporting should be confidential and, ideally, victims should have the option of reporting anonymously via a hotline or an online platform.
- Take every allegation seriously. This isn’t to say that every allegation will result in its subject losing his job, but it does mean that every allegation will be noted and, when appropriate, investigated. If the allegations are severe, steps should be taken to protect the victim from further abuse while an investigation is underway.
- Take appropriate action. If the allegations are found to have merit, appropriate measures might be discipline or dismissal, depending on the severity of the harassment. If the allegations can be neither proven nor disproven, organizations should still strive to protect the accuser; ideally, this would include an offer to transfer him/her to a comparable role elsewhere in the company, if desired. (Be mindful that you don’t want to punish the accuser for speaking up.) Whatever course of action is deemed to be appropriate, no consideration should be given to the accused person’s public persona or ability to turn a profit. Even if the accused is an established “rainmaker,” this should be weighed against the costs of the number of victims s/he has likely impacted. In addition, to the emotional costs of an abusive workplace, there are financial costs as well, which will almost always outweigh the gains made by any one individual.
- Train your employees. There are several reasons to engage your employees in training around this topic. While those who engage in severe or pervasive forms of abuse in the workplace might not be deterred from a few clearly defined “do’s & don’ts” in the form of “sexual harassment training,” it will educate those with milder intentions from making costly mistakes. However, training opportunities that address this topic don’t have to take the form of legalese and reading policies aloud. It can also be valuable to train appreciatively – that is, focus your training on building the culture you want rather than detailing the behaviors you don’t. If workplace romances are commonplace and not actively discouraged, it might also be important to train staff on how to both obtain and give consent to physical or sexual behavior. Such practices may take some of the spontaneity out of such relationships, but will allow all parties some peace of mind, knowing that their actions have not been misconstrued. Additionally, giving your employees a chance to learn about observable behaviors that create respectful workplace cultures can be a valuable exercise. Unconscious bias training will allow employees to examine their pre-conceived notions of gender and power, and cultural competency training will allow employees to behave in ways that will not be misunderstood by those with different backgrounds.
- Communicate your commitment to an inclusive and respectful workplace. The sporadic company-wide e-mail does not communicate the necessary degree of commitment to inclusion and respect that is required. Rather, the communication should be almost constant, in both large ways and small, at public events and behind closed doors, from mid-level managers and officers of the C-suite. Just as employees begin rolling their eyes and audibly groaning whenever inclusion and respect are mentioned, you’ll know that you’re beginning to be heard and will then have to communicate twice as often and just as loudly.
It’s not enough that the women and men in your employ enjoy a workplace where harassment, unwanted touching, threats, and abuse are absent. They must also be assured that the organization stands ready to defend them should these events occur in the future, and that they will not be punished, overtly or subtly, because they raised their voices to protect themselves and their colleagues.