Zero-Tolerance on Sexual Harassment Goes Beyond Resolving Individual Incidents

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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.


A leader’s work does not end after single cases of sexual harassment are resolved. This is when preventing the next case of harassment begins. Corporate leaders cannot delegate the continuous and deliberate efforts needed to create cultures of ethics and respect that not only responds to, but also prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Remediation has to do more than just resolve an issue for the people involved. It has to send a message to potential perpetrators that this behavior is not tolerated in the workplace, as well as confirm to employees that the organization is committed to creating a working environment of civility and respect. There are standard operating procedures for processing and resolving isolated sexual harassment incidents; however, we have to be more astute when it comes to conveying the greater meaning of those actions throughout the entire organization.

In any organization, especially multinationals, a number of subcultures exist. 

To do this we must get to know our corporate cultures deeply, as well as all the various subcultures that exist throughout our organizations. This is a unique point. We often use the term “culture” as a catchall for anything in the workplace that is driven by human momentum. On the issue of sexual harassment, we need more specificity. In any organization, especially multinationals, a number of subcultures exist. These can fall along lines such as region, tenure, age, seniority, and even one-on-one dynamics.

For example, the sexual harassment prevention actions and communication used with U.S. employee population may lead to cynicism for other counterparts around the world. Similarly, what triggers a sexual harassment allegation for one generation, may not even register for another. We need to go beyond finding a single best practice, and instead employ multifaceted approaches that prevent bad behavior enterprise-wide.

Determining and implementing these approaches require us to practice our zero-tolerance policy before we need to quote it. Consider the steps below:


White Paper: When Sexual Harassment Impacts Corporate Culture


Develop Focus Groups

Marketers, product developers and any profession that requires targeted messaging has benefitted from the use of focus groups. Ethics and compliance can learn from these teams. Gather informal groupings of employees from different cross sectors of your business, and get their thoughts on your organization’s sexual harassment climate as well as their perception of the organization’s handling of that climate.

Create a Public Relations Strategy for Employees

Creating systemic change on sexual harassment requires your zero-tolerance policy to go beyond the words on the page and come to life for your employees. For this you will need to enlist the right individuals to your cause. Simply put, some people are better at communicating than others. Malcom Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, identifies these individuals as “connectors” and defines them as people who can effectively influence large numbers of people organically. These are the folks you need to get on board with your culture of prevention so that they can translate the message across the unique demographics in which they have influence.

Make High-Level Cases of Harassment Highly Visible

Nothing is more harmful to your work of changing a culture than employees thinking that certain individuals get special treatment. If a senior leader is caught up in a scandal and the issue is swept under that rug, or at least appears to be to the larger employee population, cynicism sets in.

These are the cases that have the most impact on employee perceptions, and the ones they will be watching attentively to see if their organization really practices what is preaches.


Read more: The “Rock-Star Exception” Is More Expensive Than You Think


Act Swiftly

Not every sexual harassment case allows for quick processing and resolution. But we need to do our best to ensure swiftness for those that do. Employees need immediate gratification to believe that things are actually changing.

As Matt Kelly wrote recently, “only 26 percent [of employees] believe their employers can take swift action to address a workplace misconduct scandal.” This is a stat that needs to change to ensure the preventive effects of speak-up cultures can thrive. Speak-up cultures drive corporate transparency. And corporate transparency ensures bad behavior like sexual harassment isn’t allowed to fester in our dark corporate corners. This illuminates the gray areas of sexual harassment at all levels of the organization.

Any mature ethics and compliance programs ensure their zero-tolerance policy is translated into all the native languages represented by its employees. The actions of senior leaders need to resonate in the same way. This is how we go beyond righting one wrong to preventing these wrongs in the first place.

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