In recent days, we saw another round of purges of high profile men as a result of sexual harassment accusations. Gone are Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor and Russell Simmons from their companies’ top echelons. Interestingly, this crop seems to fall heavily out of the media world, both news and entertainment.
But less prominent industries are likely bracing themselves, too. Anyone celebrating that it’s not them in the hot seat should instead be taking steps to mitigate the risk it might someday be their turn.
Organizations walk a fine line when one of their own – especially a prominent, C-level member – is accused of wrong-doing. There are risks and pitfalls on all sides. To many organizations, it seems there’s no course of action that doesn’t come at a price, even if the company has followed every rule and ethical standard to the letter.
That can be tough for organizations to swallow. “We did nothing wrong but because our CEO is under attack, now we are, too,” we hear from clients. Yes. Fairly or unfairly, there is no foolproof way to completely inoculate the organization against leaders’ bad judgment and behavior. But there are a few things smart companies are doing now to help prevent future occurrences and mitigate accusations from the past.
- Do Sexual Harassment Training RIGHT…not like THIS: Don’t outsource this to HR. Own this! Schedule training immediately. Make it an annual obligation for your whole team. Make it mandatory for new hires before they join the organization. Lots of companies do this but fewer do it right and here’s why: If the C-Suite doesn’t participate or spends the entire training playing on their phones, you’re sending a clear signal: this is not something I care about. Employees smell insincerity a mile away. Take this seriously and don’t phone it in. Be present with your team when this training takes place. Explain at the top that your company culture is extremely important and that you personally and the organization as a whole won’t tolerate inappropriate behavior. If you do, it can improve your team’s productivity, clear the air, head off bad behavior and raise your stock in the eyes of your female team members immeasurably. If you don’t, your team may think, “They’re doing this because they have to for appearances’ sake, not because they really mean it.”
- Employee Handbook: Have a clear and firm policy against sexual harassment in writing in your company handbook. Require your employees to sign it, confirming that they have read and understand it. If you already have a policy, now’s a good time to remind the team what it is. Consult your legal and/or HR team to determine what, if any, liabilities or holes there might be in your current company policy and fix the ASAP.
- Vulnerability Assessment & Proactive Outreach: I continue to watch an Austin-area firm, one of whose principles has a terrible track record of inappropriate and harassing behavior against women subordinate to him on the org chart. Any day now, one of his victims is going to come forward, opening what could become a flood of accusations against her harasser and the firm, for turning a blind eye to the terrible behavior of one of their biggest earners. Does your firm have someone like that high up in the ranks? If so, do an assessment to determine how vulnerable your company might be, on the legal and PR fronts. Is it appropriate to reach out to employees you know he or she harmed, and offer an apology or compensation? You might actually be preventing a public relations nightmare for your organization and doing the right thing at the same time. And, if like the company described above, you have turned a blind eye to bad behavior, stop. Letting it happen is second only in harm to committing sexual harassment in the first place.
- Examine your diversity: I know several smart companies who have done this and are adding women leaders to their team now. And a number of global firms are joining forces to share women’s success stories in concert with Oxford University. If your company doesn’t have women at the top, get them there fast – for many, many reasons. First, of course, because your organization is missing the boat on talent, wisdom and incredible opportunity and second, because of the message you might inadvertently be sending the world and your employees. I admit freely that I watch companies within my own industry and have a dim view of the firms that seem to give all of their top roles to men. Not coincidentally, their reputations are not progressive, ground-breaking or innovative. If you’re in a traditionally male-dominated industry where it’s tough to find qualified women (are there any of those left?), find ways to enlist them on your Board of Directors or as senior advisors.
The reason we’ve gotten where we are today is because company culture and employee behavior have not been a priority for enough C-level leaders. In many cases, companies have allowed sexual harassment and work environment to be the sole domain of HR. And quite often, a blind eye has been turned to the bad behavior of those at the top.
That won’t wash anymore. It’s mandatory for leadership to go all-in on creating a safe, productive environment for all employees. If they don’t, they run the risk of jeopardizing employee morale, company culture, organizational reputation, profits and shareholder satisfaction. That’s what at stake in the here and now. Those that do embrace company culture see happier, more productive employees, less turn-over and, likely, a better bottom line.
McLane advises organizations on risk mitigation and thought leadership to help them achieve their goals.