Directors Need to Step Outside the Boardroom on the Issue of Sexual Harassment

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This blog is part of the You Can't Delegate Ethics campaign. The campaign posits that systemic change on the issue of sexual harassment will occur only when good people in power take responsibility for the issue and create workplaces that do not tolerate it.


As we’ve highlighted in our ongoing You Can’t Delegate Ethics campaign, sexual harassment is not a compliance issue, it is an abuse of power issue. It can also be a neglect of power issue. It’s what happens when good people in power standby rather than intervene. And for corporate leaders, intervention is a job requirement.

This can lead to environments in which good and well-intending people forget what it is like to be powerless.

Neglect of power is a very real issue when it comes to career executives. Rising to the level of the C-suite or board means you have been in a position of power for a long time. This can lead to environments in which good and well-intending people forget what it is like to be powerless. It results in a lack of empathy. And as board members, we can’t delegate empathy the same way we can’t delegate ethics.

Empathy is what allows board members to preempt crises, and to understand the subtle cultural cues that truly drive and prevent bad behavior. This requires going beyond the boardroom and gaining proximity to the issue and the people involved.

According to the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) Public Governance Survey “Only 35% of directors say they have a good understanding of the mood in the middle, and just 18% of them indicate they have a good grasp of the health of the culture at lower levels of the organization.”

These numbers need to go up for instances of harassment to go down. Boards should not manage the day-to-day cultural operations of organizations, but processes should be in place for them to have insight and influence on those operations. A first step is to ensure these issues command undiluted time on the board agenda.

Make “People” a Non-Negotiable Issue in Board Meetings

Board meetings are the main access point directors have to understand an organization’s relationship with issues like sexual harassment. However, the NACD states:

“…92% of [board of directors] rely on reporting from the CEO about the health of organizational culture. Fewer boards also hear directly from specialist functions, such as internal audit (39%), compliance and ethics (30%), and enterprise risk management (20%), which possess a much deeper and perhaps more independent perspective on the strength of the corporate culture than the CEO does.”

The lack of specialist insights can be traced back to the arrangement of board meetings. “People” updates are usually included, but often relegated to the backend of meetings after Finance, Sales, Marketing, etc. This approach in theory provides ample time for discussion, but in practice, things often take longer than planned.

We need to reconsider the structure of board meetings to accommodate the time needed to effectively deal with issues like sexual harassment in the workplace.

We need to reconsider the structure of board meetings to accommodate the time needed to effectively deal with issues like sexual harassment in the workplace. Boards, of course, cannot forgo their fiduciary duties to review critical finances and functions, but people issues cannot continue to take a backseat only to surface when they become full-blown crises. In the case of lawsuits, this is our stakeholder obligation; in the case of employee harm – including harm that may not rise yet to the level of legal transgression -- this is our moral obligation.

As a director on a number of boards, I have seen this achieved a couple ways. First, each meeting’s quarterly agenda can highlight 2-4 departmental updates that require the most attention. One of those should be a deeper dive from HR or Compliance at least once a year. Second, all board members should be required to take the same harassment prevention training as the executives at the company.  A discussion around the efficacy of that training, as well as trends and recent high-profile news stories around harassment, should take place in some way, shape or form – even if not part of a formal board agenda.   I have seen this done well at a board dinner, or during an off-cycle board call.  Finally, a director’s one-on-one communications with the CEO should periodically touch on issues surrounding people and culture. 

In other words, the issue needs to be attacked on all fronts – the formal board agenda, informal board communications, and one-on-one discussions. This is how directors become active participants in the organization’s ethics and compliance program, especially training and policies.

Good Power at the Top Needs to Be Visible at All Levels of the Organization

Empathy requires exposure; trust requires visibility. For directors to truly understand what an organization’s culture looks like, they need to step outside the boardroom and get to know a company through exposure beyond PowerPoint.

Empathy requires exposure; trust requires visibility.

This approach helps garner trust throughout the organization by proving authenticity. If employees only get training, policies or emails about an issue, they see the buck being passed down the line. Instead, seeing the board members who actually champion the messages behind these tactics reinforces the support from the top and cuts employee cynicism.

How this plays out in your organizations can vary. It could be mentioning the board in town halls or newsletter updates, all the way to having board members onsite during annual kickoffs or social events. Also consider adding quotes from board members in your policies, and including images or video of board members in your harassment prevention training programs. The tone at the top needs a face, name and authenticity for it to permeate throughout an organization.

Empathy is not a term often used in regard to boards of directors, but it needs to be. It cannot continue to be a trait that corporate leaders shed as they climb the ranks. Leaders need to think outside the boardroom and own their role in eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace. 


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