Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Here’s How to Know if Sexual Harassment Is More Likely at Your Work

business meeting

business meeting

Ann Skeet

This article was originally published in MarketWatch on December 15, 2017. 

Ann Skeet is the Director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views expressed here are her own.

Revelations are now being shared routinely about workplace sexual harassment. People are seeking information about specific situations and also how to gauge the overall health of places they work, or where others work, like perhaps the school where they send their children each day.  

I have written before about questions that help determine if a company’s culture is healthy . These questions are also useful for assessing how likely harassment is to occur and what one might expect if it happens:

1. What is known about the leadership’s character and temperament?

If the CEO or other top executives have a reputation for misbehavior, it’s a basic red flag.  CEO behavior has received more attention since the exit of Travis Kalanick from Uber, but there have been disturbing stories about other CEOs such as American Apparel’s Dov Charney and Snap’s Evan Spiegel.  In both of those cases, boards and investors were made aware of the offensive behavior towards women but were slow to act or chose not to act all.  That old saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is a reasonable caution for employees, salespeople calling on clients, and entrepreneurs seeking funding.

Does this mean there is nothing to worry about if the organization’s leaders have been in place for a long time and have impeccable reputations? Not always. When people hold leadership positions for long periods, organizations are a greater risk for calcification.  Change can be harder to implement and the CEO can see himself or be seen by others as untouchable or unchallengeable by virtue of tenure in such organizations.  This is a greater risk in non-profit organizations where the boards are volunteers and less likely to use the power they have than in public companies, or in private companies, such as Uber, where obligations for transparency are lower than in public companies.

2. Are healthy relationships valued?  

As you assess interacting with a business as a possible employee, customer, or as your company’s client, what do you know about the culture of that organization?  When there is an evident, oft-referenced set of cultural norms, a mission statement or values used regularly in decision-making, or stories that reinforce respecting people and relationships, these are hopeful signs.  People in organizations with a strong sense of community may experience this is a source of protection against inappropriate relationships.

3. Is compliance seen as an asset or a hassle?

As much as we all might resist annual sexual harassment training or industry specific versions, such as Title IX in education, the absence of such fundamental compliance activities should definitely be a flag that employee or customer safety is not a priority.  Codes of conduct, statements against discrimination and harassment are standard aspects of American workplaces.  If you don’t see these, or sense resistance to using them, it’s another sign that the organization may be at higher risk for harassment.

4. Do leaders serve the organization or themselves?

Research has shown that self-focused CEOs, more concerned with personal gain and caring mostly about themselves and their own financial security, are lower performing than those with stronger moral character.  Their interest in making their own money and serving their own interests suggests these are leaders who might be more willing to look the other way if a top performer is charged with harassment or rumors suggest a pattern of bad behavior.  If leaders are identified with standing up for what is right, express concern for the common good, let mistakes go and demonstrate empathy, they are dubbed “virtuoso” CEOs and are more likely to foster cultures where such behavior is not accepted — and to move quickly and decisively if it occurs.

5. What happens when things go wrong?

Not only do leaders need to move quickly when allegations are made, they also need move consistently.  If more senior employees are held to a different standard then others, it’s more likely that will be true in the cases of harassment charges as well.  

Sure, the boss has to be mindful that a charge may prove false and should act therefore in a way that respects both the accused and the accuser until an investigation is conducted.  It may be difficult to suspend an outstanding employee, but as difficult as such a move might be, it reinforces that the organization takes harassment claims seriously and is willing to examine itself.

When companies develop a reputation of consistent response to claims and even sanctions, over time this balances out reputational concerns.  The organization becomes known as a decent place to work, with a reputation for taking such charges seriously. Someone temporarily removed from the workplace but returned if cleared is then much more likely to maintain credibility.

6. Are policies and practices consistent with the organization’s mission and values?

First of all, a company needs to have systems in place. The most basic should be policies around appropriate conduct and reporting infractions.  It is a management function to ensure these policies are carried out, but corporate directors bear the responsibility of making sure they are in place. When I hear executive teams cite a board member’s question or concern as crossing the line into management’s terrain, I start to pay attention even more closely.  All too often such dynamics around the roles of staff and board mask an unfortunate reality, which is a lack of basic policy development.  

No, boards should not be involved in the hiring and firing of employees, and harassment claims (unless against the CEO) should be handled by the CEO and her team. But directors are responsible for making sure policies exist, practices are audited, and consistency is tested.  It is well within the bounds and duties of board members to inquire about harassment claims and their dispatch.

After sound policy development and its even application, are the company’s practices designed to encourage and endorse appropriate behavior? There are some simple ways well-meaning professionals have guarded against violators or claims. For example, does the teacher keep her door open when she is meeting with a student alone?  Often accessibility, cost or time pressures put employees in situations where they are more vulnerable. Conducting professional meetings in hotel rooms, for instance, is a bad idea.

There are more subtle and complex systems that contribute to harassment, and typically their flaw is in the imbalance of power.  A professor seeking tenure, an attorney hoping to make partner — all professionals that participate in promotion practices tied to a timetable are, in my opinion, at risk right out of the gate.  Leaders in all professions should be asking themselves what they might be willing to let go of in some of these time-honored professional practices if it creates more fairness and safety in the workplace.

Feb 2, 2018

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