Time to Talk About Harassment

A month or two ago I wrote here about courageous authenticity — the ability to speak and encourage dialogue about difficult, challenging and even taboo topics without anger, blame or finger-pointing.

In the last few months we have seen a perfect laboratory for a leader’s test of courageous authenticity. The recent flood of women who have begun speaking out about behavior that ranges from inappropriate to criminal creates a lightning-rod topic for organizational leaders. It is a challenging topic to discuss openly — and it is an incendiary topic to ignore. And like so many topics that require courage to address, harassment in your workplace is not a topic to put off.

There is not a lot of subtlety in the decision. A leader is either going to address harassment in the culture of the organization or pass and hope that it does not become a major problem — until it does. The days of ignoring this issue and the people it affects are gone, as well they should be. Until recently, women largely either colluded out of a sense of hopelessness (“Oh, boys will be boys.”) or felt it utterly unsafe to say anything or suffered in silence.

One common form of denial about this issue is the appearance that it is suddenly au courant for women to claim to have been taken advantage of in ways ranging from subtle, inappropriate behavior to sexual extortion. It should not be a mystery why there is “suddenly” such a flood of complaints that an entire movement is afoot. In any infestation or plague, little attention is generally paid until enough cases are reported, and then many who were silent raise their hands — in this case, saying #MeToo.

So after decades of turning a blind eye to almost all women who voiced a concern, it should not be shocking that larger numbers are speaking out at time when there is at least hope that their experiences will not be dismissed out of hand.

One of the common sayings among my peers who run Vistage CEO groups is that in our businesses “we get what we tolerate.”

A leader who tolerates bad behavior actively communicates tacit approval. Harassment can be an uncomfortable and emotionally charged topic to talk about. And the company that does not address harassment will see more of it — and eventually is likely to be addressing it in court, or in the court of public opinion.

Vistage speaker and nationally acclaimed HR guru Hunter Lott had this to say about how companies should be preparing for harassment problems, and responding to them:

“If an employee feels that he or she is a target of sexual harassment or witnesses harassing behavior, they should be encouraged to voice their concerns to management. Handbook language that tells victims to first address the issue with the alleged harasser is misguided. This takes management out of the loop. An employer’s corporate culture is management’s obligation. This is a leadership issue. Having a policy against harassment and training managers on complaint procedures is the right thing to do. It can also provide additional legal protection. However, it’s only as good as management’s willingness to act. You cannot abdicate your leadership responsibility to a policy.”

Ironically, it turns out that by ignoring the possibility that there is harassment happening in an organization, leadership exposes the company to added risk. Again, quoting Hunter Lott in 2009 (What? You thought this was only a 2017 issue?):

“Of the roughly 5,000 sex-harassment complaints filed with EEOC last year [2008], the majority of them were based on supervisors not responding to initial complaints. Most firms get into trouble because supervisors don’t take complaints seriously, so employees feel forced to go outside the company to get someone to listen to them.”

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, January 15, 2018.