It’s a little baffling for some of us how shocked some people are about all the revelations of sexual harassment in the workplace. After all, it’s not a new phenomenon in any regard. But what’s even harder to comprehend is how many fingers are being pointed in different directions. It seems everyday a new incident involving a media personality or politician or business executive is reported, often with a public admission of wrongdoing. So what would make people think they could get away with such behavior? They read the signs indicating that they could. The behavior was tolerated, excused, ignored usually because the individual was in a powerful role. If organizational leaders want to avoid that kind of behavior, they have to take specific steps to get their organizations…buttoned up.
It Starts With the Leaders
If leaders find themselves saying things like “Lighten up” in response to reports of workplace behavior that, a “reasonable person,” would find intimidating, hostile, or offensive—and, yes, this is a legal term—then its time to reexamine their reactions. As you review the list of possible harassing behaviors, does it strike you that many are the same behaviors bullies employ?
- offensive jokes
- slurs, nicknames or name calling
- physical assaults or threats
- ridicule or mockery
- insults or put-downs
- offensive objects or pictures
- interference with work performance
Leaders must walk the talk and model the appropriate behaviors for everyone. In running a business it’s easy to forget you’re being watched for clues about what behavior is acceptable. You’re setting the tone for the culture. And while some people mistake Taco Tuesday and Margarita Monday for culture, an organization’s real culture is the way people treat each other while they work to get things done.
Create an Open Communication System
Shady or disrespectful behavior can’t thrive in an organization that has an open, transparent communication system. Part of a transparent communication system is creating clear and consistent processes for everything that must be communicated—including sexual harassment. There should be protocols for reporting the information and employees need to understand how, and how quickly, the incident will be investigated. A key ingredient is that there is no punishment—overt or otherwise—for the person who blew the whistle.
Leaders must make it clear they expect to be informed, not shielded, about what’s happening in the company. For example, if someone reports that the rock star performer says inappropriate things to co-workers, the leader has to be willing to hold that person accountable for a change in behavior and even be prepared to fire them. Leaders communicate constantly through their words and actions whether the buck stops with them or they’d rather it stopped somewhere down the chain of command. But if they hope to be told the truth (before it’s too late), they can’t respond with emotionalism or avoidance. They need to demonstrate emotional maturity, taking calm, decisive action.
Hire Carefully, Then Train
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched a hiring managers gloss over obvious red flags in their desperation to fill a position and then hope the employee’s behavior will get better over time. Who ever gets better after you hire them? Whatever you get in the beginning, that’s the employee’s best behavior. Hiring somebody with problems means they’ll create more problems before you have to fire them. Save yourself the time. Make sure the company has a culture of respect and then ensure that everything from the way the job description is phrased, to the way interviewing and onboarding are handled, that you communicate those expectations. This will attract emotionally mature people who prefer that kind of behavior anyway, and scare off those who tend to bring their adolescent selves to the workplace.
Then, you have to train, train, train, train, train. No matter how many jokes are made about promoting people to their level of incompetence, companies still make the mistake of thinking that a great salesperson would, for example, make a great sales manager. Or a great customer service rep is automatically wonderful at managing the customer service staff. Managing is its own skill set. You have to make sure that everyone who works for you has the skill set to handle the job of overseeing others, even in difficult situations like harassment claims.
Every company has tools to manage risk when it comes to finances, equipment failure, floods. We need to understand that human beings behaving disrespectfully toward one another in the workplace carries significant risks, too, and treat them as such. And if you’d like help, we’re experts.