Recently, complaints about powerful men (and women) committing sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace have gone from a trickle to a torrent. After years of victims remaining silent about their mistreatment, they are finally speaking out in great numbers and I say bravo. It’s about time! But one has to ask why these victims have waited so long to speak out? The reasons range from fear of retribution to loss of job, to not being believed and plain old embarrassment. All very realistic fears.
Imagine if you were a victim of your boss groping you or trying to give you an unwanted kiss or pressuring you to have sex against your will. Then imagine the fear you may feel complaining to your human resource department or to the boss of the one abusing you, especially if you’d seen such candor ignored or punished in the past.
In our book Absolute Honesty, Building a Corporate Culture That Values Straight Talk and Rewards Integrity my coauthor Bob Phillips and I focused on the need to have an organizational culture where people feel free to express their opinions without fear of embarrassment or retribution because such freedom enhances the open flow of ideas. It also raises the chances that the status quo will be challenged on a regular basis. All good stuff if you want to stay ahead of your competitors.
Such a culture also raises the odds that if someone is up to no-good, fellow employees are more likely to say something to the appropriate person. Very good stuff if you want to stay out of the headlines and out of court. Think of the recent scandals of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, or Volkswagen’s attempt to defraud emission tests with shifty software, or Wells Fargo employees setting up fake accounts to enhance their sales scores.
I now realize that this concept has direct application to the issue of sexual harassment. Obviously, the institutional emphasis on open and honest expression that we suggest in our book would raise the odds that when someone is sexually harassed or abused, they would feel safer to tell the right person, whether it be the harasser’s boss or human resources, so the behavior gets nipped in the bud early on.
Five tips to create a culture free of sexual harassment?
1. Have an open discussion with your team about sexual harassment and make sure they know that you have a zero-tolerance policy.
2. Let everyone know that you encourage them to speak up if they see or experience harassment.
3. Assure them that there will never be retribution for bringing this behavior to light.
4. Implement formal training that exposes everyone to concrete examples of what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior.
5. When people come forward with a complaint about inappropriate behavior, be sure to welcome rather than discourage them.
Welcome bad news about sexual harassment
On this last point, be aware that we all can inadvertently discourage a person from being candid with us by reacting in ways that say, “I don’t want to hear this.” Here are some suggestions to make sure you encourage rather than discourage the complainer:
• Conduct the conversation in private.
• Take the complaint seriously.
• Give the complainer your full attention.
• Practice good listening skills, which include:
o Attending – eye contact, leaning forward, acting like you’re listening.
o Paraphrasing – as they tell their story, rephrase key points so they know you’re getting what they’re trying to convey.
o Empathizing – express how you think theymust be feeling. This will help them to feel like you’re getting it.
• Do not try to talk them out of it.
• Tell them what you plan to do with the information so they know you’ve taken them seriously and you are willing to act to prevent this from happening again.
• Reassure them that they did the right thing by telling you what happened.
• Thank them as well. Remember, they just took a big risk coming to you, which was probably very difficult for them, and even though it’s information you didn’t want to hear, it’s information you really need to have. They just did you a big favor by bringing this problem to your attention.
• Then act. Take it to your upper manager and/or your human resource department and follow their procedures and advice. If your organization doesn’t have an HR department, consult with your upper manager and bring in a labor lawyer to make sure you proceed correctly and legally to deal with the abuser.
The bottom line about sexual harassment
Inappropriate sexual behavior is NEVER OK in the workplace. It negatively affects victims’ psychological well-being; it may reduce their productivity, and it’s simply wrong. Additionally, it can reduce the productivity of your team. Research tells us that people are most productive when they work in a safe environment. When sexual harassment and abuse go unchecked, your team won’t feel safe and that can have devastating effects on your team, their morale and their productivity.
BTW: If you thought with a chuckle that “bottom line” was a poor choice of words in the previous sub-title, maybe your attitude about the seriousness of this topic needs a second look. Remember, your people follow your lead. If you make jokes about sexual harassment, they’re unlikely to take it seriously. If you treat it seriously, they are much more likely to do so.