Recent events have highlighted the damage a toxic culture can do to a company and its reputation. In the past six months, more than 70 leaders have been publicly accused of inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace. Many have been forced out of their organizations as a result. 1 The companies they’ve worked for have been left to rebuild their brand.
The evolving public dialogue has made the issue of sexual harassment more mainstream. With technology making it easier for people to share their stories, colleagues, customers and potential new hires are becoming far more aware of what they should expect from their employers, present and future, and/or service providers. Not having proper prevention and response mechanisms to address sexual harassment in the workplace not only creates a toxic work environment for employees—including poor staff engagement and higher turnover—but also leaves the company vulnerable to high legal fees and reputational damage. According to Harvard Business Review, sexual harassment can cost organizations up to $22,500 a year in lost productivity for each employee affected.2
Protecting your organization is more important than ever. But how can you defend your company from such issues? The answer lies in a transparent and respectful culture, and leadership that supports it.
Despite the training, procedures and policies many organizations have in place, cases of sexual harassment in the workplace have been prevalent for decades. This suggests the traditional paradigm for addressing these issues highly ineffective. Companies that truly want to establish an environment free of harassment, gender bias and incivility may want to take a more holistic approach to address the root cause of the problem: culture.
Organizational culture, the set of shared behaviors, beliefs, values and assumptions within an organization, is impacted by internal and external environment. It is ever-evolving and fluid, which can make it difficult to measure, let alone transform.
Five key considerations can help companies address the deep-seeded underpinnings of sexual harassment:
- Designing thoughtful policy
Effectively designed conduct policies provide a solid framework and are essential to long-term success. Robust sexual harassment and conduct policies are often an expression of the tone at the top, and will send a clear message that can create trust in leadership. To be compliant with applicable federal regulation, companies should run the extra mile by refraining from using legal or technical jargon, affirming their convictions with strong statements, and defining clear rules and concrete examples of not tolerated behaviors that can be easily understood and applied by employees at all levels.
- Establishing meaningful and impactful initiatives
Some companies may take this matter for granted, relying on a limited number of sexual harassment concerns raised. Others, pushed by a previous lack of attention, may rush to start multiple, uncoordinated initiatives. Whatever a company’s current situation, any initiative should be strategically prepared, not only to ensure alignment of corporate policies with rules, laws and regulations, but also to transform the company culture, now and in the long term. Companies should seize this opportunity for self-introspection and assess their capabilities regarding prevention, detection, and response to sexual harassment and misconduct.
- Ensuring cultural alignment
Companies should be mindful of the potential for gaps in how leadership perceives culture and practices, versus how the rest of the enterprise embraces it. Organizations should align their initiatives with their overall mission, core values and business goals. At the same time, they may want to assess employee sentiment by performing focus groups, that can not only collect meaningful feedback but also create dialog that can unify employees in conceptualizing and helping to build their vision of a workplace free of harassment.
- Monitoring initiatives’ impact
A transformation/change tracker is a crucial tool that can inform the company about its status toward achieving objectives, the impact on company culture and business performance, and any actionable insights. Measurable and achievable objective should be defined to start the transformation journey that should be supported by valid and complete metrics. The same metrics can also help monitor ongoing activities once initiatives are implemented, allowing companies to determine which activities are preventing and/or detecting harassment, and which should be redesigned or eliminated.
- Leveraging innovation
An innovative approach can help accelerate employees’ engagement and adherence to conduct policies. New learning approaches, blending formal and informal learning intervention, are replacing siloed and outdated online “check the box” training. Companies can now also apply analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions in various spaces, like suspect behavior detection or even an automated Human Resources (HR)/Compliance Chatbot3 that mimic human-like interactions and guides employees to the right information of the company.
Simply revising company policies and value statements may not be enough. To address sexual harassment, organizations should assess the effectiveness of their prevention and response mechanisms, and foster a culture where employees are comfortable raising issues, with no fear of retaliation.
- “After Weinstein: 71 Men Accused of Sexual Misconduct and Their Fall From Power,” New York Times, Feb. 8, 2018. Access at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/10/us/men-accused-sexual-misconduct-weinstein.html
- “Why We Fail to Report Sexual Harassment,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2016. Access at: https://hbr.org/2016/10/why-we-fail-to-report-sexual-harassment
- “Accenture Tries Chatbot for Code of Conduct,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24, 2018. Access at https://blogs.wsj.com/riskandcompliance/2018/01/24/accenture-tries-chatbot-for-code-of-conduct/
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