This Article is Co-Authored by Samier Mansur and Meera Seshadri
From the media highrises of New York City to the studios of Hollywood and the tech corridors of Silicon Valley, the past few months have revealed the ugly extent to which sexual harassment and assault plagues America’s workplaces. The Fox Networks, Ubers, and Harvey Weinsteins of the corporate world tell a story that is all too familiar: People in positions of power who take advantage of vulnerable employees; the company cover up to protect the harasser and its reputation; and retaliations against those who come forward or speak out.
Transparency and accountability are values that promote employee morale and productivity, and are ultimately good for business. However, as the recent online #MeToo revelations have shown around the world, people are paying the high mental, emotional, and financial price for a corporate culture built on silence, retribution, and lack of accountability. What does it say about our culture when 70 percent of those harassed across the workforce are too afraid to speak up? Or when 75 percent of people who experience harm are brave enough to come forward and are then subject to retaliation? For too long, this culture has undermined and marginalized its workforce by putting the reputation of the company above every employee’s basic human right to dignity, respect.
The revelations over the past year highlight two truths: 1) What we’ve seen in the media is just the tip of a far-reaching and systemic culture of tolerance for sexual harassment and assault that spans virtually every industry; and 2) at a time when corporate culture is directly tied to brand value, companies that continue to airbrush allegations out of their books are in for a rude awakening.
The cost of a short-sighted culture of silence and behind-closed-door settlements are among the highest in the corporate world. For example, sexual harassment and assault cases have cost 21st Century Fox $110 million in settlements alone, in addition to missed quarterly revenue earnings. Uber’s hit from this year’s highly public harassment claims has been estimated to be as high as $18 billion in market valuation following a company-wide staff and leadership overhaul and diminished brand perception. The company also saw an astounding decline in talent ― female engineers decreased from 25 percent to six percent over the period of allegations.
As for Harvey Weinstein, his career in the industry is effectively over; and the remaining staff at his fledgling company have collectively penned a letter calling for “radical transparency and accountability” if the company is to survive with them in it.
Employees expect better from their employers by way of culture, and the status quo is not sustainable. With over 50 percent of sexual harassment in the workplace coming from those in positions of power, meaningful solutions will require concerted, strategic, and sustained reinforcement from the leadership. They need to go beyond the one-time harassment training modules that 90% of large companies offer — and which multiple studies (including a comprehensive study on harassment in the workforce conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016) have demonstrated to have little to no effect.
To repeat the same thing and expect different results doesn’t work - and so many leaders at this time have questioned what to do. The following five actionable steps are designed to help build a culture of transparency, accountability, and sensitivity on the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace:
1. Hold a team meeting to let your employees know you have their back
A powerful way for a company or team leader to send a strong message is to hold an all-hands meeting where s/he offers their support should anyone in their team feel threatened, demeaned, or made to feel uncomfortable in the course of their duties. Jessica Carson, an Associate Director at a prominent mental health association wrote about this recently, “I know it may seem ‘obvious...’” she began, “But it’s not. No matter how ‘open’ you are with your employees, it’s NOT their default state to talk to you about sex, flirtation, and unwanted advances. YOU need to open that space. YOU need to make it explicitly clear that they will be heard... Feeling protected in that safe space is one of the best examples of leadership one can experience.”
This meeting should strongly emphasize: i) sexual harassment and assault are criminal offenses; ii) no one, regardless of rank, or how much they contribute to the bottom line is above the company’s commitment to the rights and wellbeing of its employees; iii) there is a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to illegal harassment and discrimination in any form; and d) the organization has a plan to address these issues.
2. Create a shared definition of what constitutes harassment
Studies show that when acts of harassment are “specifically defined”, more people report incidents. Developing a shared definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, assault, or harm ― with clear examples of what people may experience in the workplace ― comes with two important benefits: first, employees are better able to recognize and report workplace infractions; and second, employees feel greater representation and ownership over a company culture and policies they helped shape.
Any shared definition of harm should represent the plurality of identities and experiences within the company. For instance, minorities face sexual harassment at higher rates than their counterparts, and a staggering 90% of trans-identified workers report some form of harassment or mistreatment in the workplace. When people of all genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities see themselves represented in leadership, policy, and protocol, they are more likely to share their experiences and ideas on how the company culture can improve.
3. Establish an effective confidential reporting system
Trauma affects each individual differently, and this nuance matters. There is a reason why sexual harassment and assault are among the most underreported workplace violations. No matter how open and receptive the company, manager, or even HR may be, these are sensitive issues that can benefit from trauma informed approaches to reporting that prioritizes confidentiality.
The following strategies can encourage an atmosphere in which employees feel more comfortable to disclose and report: i) employees know exactly where their report is going (and by whom it’s being received); ii) their claim is taken seriously and supported; iii) their report is completely confidential (until otherwise directed by the person who made the report); and iv) the report is followed through on, with the claimant kept informed of the process at every step. This process can help encourage reporting, and provide much-needed support in what can be an overwhelming emotional ordeal for the person who experienced harm.
4. Create shared accountability: Culture in action
For a culture to work, it must be lived in the daily experiences and interactions within a community. Holding every individual accountable ― from the top down ― to the company’s shared definition of harm requires taking into account structures of power and status.There will be times when a colleague witnesses behavior that constitutes harassment, or an employee confides in their colleague about a harmful experience they had with another co-worker. In such situations, it’s important to establish an environment where every member of the organization feels supported in calling out the harmful behavior of another ― be they a colleague, manager, or an executive.
Employees who are encouraged to keep an eye out for one another, and are trained in how to sensitively and appropriately respond to a disclosure, become a part of the solution. Their efforts are strengthened by managers and executives who support and endorse trauma-informed policies and processes. Working in collaboration, this network effect helps: i) engender trust in the new system; ii) normalize the act of checking in on someone; and iii) create safer and more equitable spaces where people feel supported in coming forward to address harmful attitudes and actions.
5. Create lasting cultural impact
As we have seen, it is not sufficient to have one board meeting or training session to announce a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment. Setting the tone at the top is one thing; keeping it pitch perfect as it resonates through the organization is another. Below are three ways to ensure the longevity of a company’s efforts to address these issues and facilitate meaningful culture change:
- Obtain stakeholder buy-in: In order to effectively change attitudes and actions, every person in the organization ― from board member to new hire ― should have a clear understanding of i) how the issue of sexual harassment and assault will be prioritized, ii) what their specific role in implementing policy and protocol will be, iii) what accountability looks like, and iv) what channels exist to support them.
- Reinforce the message: Reinforce the message and the company’s progress through public newsletters, social media, annual reports, board meetings, and one-on-one supervision. Be prepared to answer employee questions and have a roll-out plan that supports management’s implementation of the message.
- Keep the pulse: Fear of retaliation in its many forms can often prevent employees from sharing honest feedback regarding their colleagues, employees, and supervisors’ behavior. Regular check-ins, 360 performance reviews, and anonymous culture surveys can be an efficient and transparent way to gather quality feedback from employees.
Sexual harassment and assault are an epidemic in our workplaces. It is better to get ahead of the issue than pay the reactive costs of looking the other way. As innumerable recent examples have demonstrated, the human and financial toll it takes is too steep and devastating for any organization to delay prioritizing its prevention.
Taken together, these five steps go beyond the minimum strategic defense against future lawsuits. More importantly, they are an opportunity to help build an organizational culture that fosters respect, transparency, and accountability. This cultural evolution ultimately inspires trust and loyalty at every level, attracts and retains talent, and builds a resilient and successful brand from the inside out.
Now that’s an investment worth making.
Appendix: Thinking more broadly about the issue:
- Think creatively about “professional development.” Professional development opportunities abound in everyday interactions, and are often differently experienced by women, LGBTQ identified, and people of color. Be mindful of: i) who is included in email communication when big ideas are brainstormed, ii) who is chosen to represent the company on committees, at networking dinners, or ad-hoc happy hour drinks with the CEO, iii) invited to present their work and expertise, and, iv) considered for a promotion with significant decision-making power.
- Harassment as a global public health issue. Sexual harassment, abuse, and violence happen in a variety of public and private spaces; almost every organization has porous borders. Consider how a commuter benefit may be particularly helpful for employees who spend late hours in the office and feel unsafe walking to and from the parking garage, train station, or bus stop. Examine how employees feel supported when working national or international assignments - and conversely, how international stakeholders, colleagues, or partners outside the organization are introduced to the organization’s gender equity policies. Ensure that support services, resources, and accountability systems are offered to every person who engages with your company, no matter where they are in the world.