(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

Henley Leadership Group Blog

End Sexual Harassment At Work: 4 Things To Start Doing Now


Previously Published on Forbes.com.

The #MeToo hashtag has blown up on Twitter. Thousands of women (and some men) have announced publicly that they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace. Some (mainly men) have confessed to harassing them. It’s an epidemic of confession forcing everyone to confront a sad reality of which most men (but not most women) are unaware: 54% of all American women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” at some point in their lives, according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll. 30% of women have endured such behavior from male colleagues in the workplace, and 25% identified their harassers as men with influence over their careers. And women lose their jobs because of it. In fact, victimized women lose their jobs at much higher rates than do their abusers: 89% compared to 18%, according to a 2014 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute.

We all agree these are depressing statistics. And clearly, they indicate that something is wrong in these workplaces, something bad for business. What can we do about it? How do we create healthier organizations?

There are four steps leaders and organizations can take, but let’s begin with the basics: good manners.

1. Watch your wit

 Don’t use sexually-charged humor. Just don’t. That’s a minefield. Find other ways to be funny. And watch when you speak sarcastically to and about your colleagues, especially as you rise in your organization. The impact of your words increases proportionally to your organizational clout. Remember: The Greek root of “sarcasm” means “to tear flesh.” You may think you’re being funny; the person bleeding does not.

A senior executive at a midsized company (call him Steve) thought sarcasm was funny. When he was CFO, it wasn’t a big issue.  But when he became CEO, people, including the members of his leadership team, began to fear and avoid him. This was doing neither Steve nor the business any good.

 Fortunately, Steve wanted to be a good CEO. So, when the damage his sarcasm was causing was pointed out to him, he listened. And stopped. In a few months, one of his SVPs told him that the team was performing more effectively since Steve stowed the sarcasm.

2. Help people speak up

It’s a leader’s job to provide a safe way for people to report incidents of abuse or sexual harassment. People who are afraid of damaging their careers, or losing their jobs, will not speak up. Harvey Weinstein taught us that.

Create anonymous whistle-blower lines for reporting harassment. Take complaints seriously. If someone is being harassed and tells you about it, assume they’re telling the truth. Most women — 75%, according to a 2016 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study – don’t report workplace sexual harassment due to fear of retaliation, or not being believed. And “companies that don’t make it easy for their employees to report small problems internally are likely to find themselves facing much larger problems externally,” according to an article on whistleblowing by Ethical Systems, a non-profit at NYU Stern’s Business and Society Program. That’s another Weinstein lesson.

The key to creating reporting systems that employees trust is finding someone to be the system’s champion in whom employees have faith. Generally, that person cannot be from HR; HR is perceived to work for the organization, not the employees. Choose your champion by listening to your employees. He or she might be a mid-level manager, or a C-Suite executive. You won’t know if you don’t ask around.

3. Create a zero-tolerance policy

Ensure that buying the silence of the victims is not an option.

For instance, the CEO of a national healthcare organization had a favorite SVP, the head of a large, successful division. The CEO liked him and considered him a potential successor. Then, two women accused him of making sexual advances at several off-sites. The CEO listened to the women; their accusations were confirmed by others, and he fired the SVP, sending the zero-tolerance message to the rest of the organization.

Just as importantly, if you see someone being marginalized or offended in a meeting, speak up. That is how change happens.

In a recent team meeting at a large software company, the team leader (call him Serge) directed all his questions to the men in the room. One of them asked if Sarah, one of the few women on the team, had any input. By including his female colleague, the engineer both reinforced the idea of teamwork and sent a subtle message to Serge about his (possibly unconscious) bias.

4. Hire more women

Do an audit. How many women do you have in management positions? How many women are promoted each year? Do the numbers reflect equity or bias? If the latter, you have a problem. Eliminate gender bias to allow for more productive hiring decisions.

As a manager, you may think, “I’ll know the right person when I meet him/her.” This approach is likely to net people who are just like you. Have a diverse team do the initial candidate-screening. And consider conducting blind auditions and interviews, where you know nothing about a candidate’s gender, ethnicity or age. This can yield good candidates who may not have made it through a more traditional process and produce a more diverse staff. The evidence is overwhelming that the more diverse and inclusive a workforce – the more it reflects the company’s customers – the more innovative, agile and yes, profitable the business.

The challenges facing businesses are too complex and multifaceted for any one person to solve. Smart business leaders know they must support and encourage collaboration and teamwork. Guy culture, with its emphasis on dominance, competition, and binary win-lose, is inimical to collaboration. The selfish pursuit of power and authority, and the puerile pursuit of personal satisfaction, are destructive to businesses that depend upon the free flow of good, unbiased information.

Clean up your organization. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good business.