Every day there are new stories of well-known men accused of sexually harassing or assaulting their female colleagues. After the initial “shock,” the focus turns to the penalty and how these men will be punished for their actions. Beyond losing their jobs, they lose the power and respect they once wielded – the same power and respect that enabled them to commit these terrible acts – and for most of them, that is far, far worse than being unemployed.
But this is not just about punishment—so much more is at stake.
What about those who have come forward? What about the non-well-known women (and men) in the workforce and in generations to come? How do we ensure they don’t have to endure this abuse and the agonizing choice of keeping their jobs and building a successful career versus standing up to those in power? Is it realistic to think new policies will work when current policies that looked fine on paper have not?
With an issue that is far more often gray than the headline grabbing cases might lead you to believe, a company’s instinct to get tough and institute “zero tolerance” policies can result in unintended consequences. In fact, there is a tendency to over-correct, creating a workplace that is stilted, formal, less productive, and ultimately discriminates more against women by singling them out from men, subconsciously labeling them as dangerous, and causing those in power to think twice before mentoring employees of the opposite sex, lest their actions be misconstrued.
This is not about rules and regulations. It’s about a dramatic cultural shift – a shift that starts at the top.
That’s why it’s critical that organizations take a considered, thoughtful approach to next steps rather than a hasty, reactive one -- starting at the Board level.
A recent survey released by the Boardlist revealed that nearly 77% of Boards had not discussed sexual harassment or gender discrimination and nearly 88% had not implemented a plan of action. While these numbers are likely different now, making governance and structural changes that create a positive, values-driven culture is critical. Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column about the need to move to the next level is on point.
While that is happening, however, here are some interim steps to take:
- Create a culture of trust. The ideal workplace operates with a culture of respect for all regardless of gender, title, race, sexual orientation, etc., and has a true open-door policy. Trust permeates the office, enabling employees to come forward without fear of retribution. There is no yelling, no blame game, no office politics. People feel comfortable reporting abuse and others feel they can speak up if they see abuse. While this might not be immediately achievable, initiating a dialogue and providing a platform for conversation is a reasonable start, as long as it comes from very highest levels of the organization.
- Focus on transparency. Talk to your teams about what you are doing to ensure you create a valued-based culture. Share updates from the board on how you are looking at everything to create a culture of trust. Communicate and engage with employees so that they know you are taking action and are committed to building a safe and positive work environment.
- Encourage affirmative consent. In a world where we often feel powerless, the simple act of starting safe and supportive conversations around sexual harassment and abuse can really energize employees reeling under the weight of these issues. Beyond giving people permission to speak up when confronted with indecent, disrespectful behavior, companies can encourage people to look for “affirmative consent” when interacting with each other, something currently used to combat sexual assault on college campuses. Translation – make sure all parties are comfortable with the interaction and be prepared to change course if they’re not. Sounds simple enough, but it’s surprisingly under-utilized.
Is this a time of seismic change that we are living? I agree with Meg Whitman that this may be a tipping point and I am optimistic that we can all help promote an environment of equality, safety, and support. But we need to start now to make to impactful, long-term change for the future.
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