Peter Drucker said it best: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In the past two decades, more and more organizations have deployed strategies for reducing and eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace. The recent #MeToo movement has proven just how right Drucker was: the cultures of these organizations have devoured the most well-intended strategies. When it comes to issues that impact women in the workplace, organizations don’t mean to be bad. They have spent considerable time, energy and resources to reduce sexual harassment. But most fail utterly when it comes to stopping the unacceptable levels of harassment and misconduct because they aren’t employing strategies proven to change culture.
By now, nearly all organizations have instituted policies that define and discourage sexual harassment. But too many stop there. Any training they do is compliance based. Employees page through the policy and take an online test. This process gives the organization legal cover, but it does nothing to correct the problem.
Leaders can take steps to substantially reduce the level of sexual harassment and misconduct in their organizations. These steps include creating a system that holds leaders accountable for positive norms, implementing training that focuses on positive behaviors and developing processes that ensure open communication.
Without accountability, policies are paper tigers. Organizations know this, so “no accountability” is rarely the problem. What is common, is an accountability process that’s focused too exclusively on perpetrators and suspected perpetrators. Of course, bad actors need to be identified, adjudicated and punished. And this part of the accountability process needs to be fair and effective. But the problem is that perpetrator-focused accountability only comes into play after the fact — after there is an incident and a victim. Effective accountability systems do more than correct harm. They prevent it.
Accountability systems that aim to prevent harm track leading indicators as well as harm itself. And they hold managers at all levels accountable for improving their leading-indicator scores. They set improvement targets, they take regular measures (often semi-annually), and they impose career-limiting consequences for continued poor performance.
Below are examples of survey items that track leading indicators of harassment:
- If I experienced sexual harassment or misconduct, I’m confident I could safely report it and that I would be treated with respect and fairness.
- Leaders in my location make it clear they will not tolerate sexual harassment or misconduct in any form.
- When people I work with witness or hear about sexual harassment or misconduct, they intervene and put a stop to it.
Notice that these particular items all focus on the way bad behavior is handled. But it’s a mistake to track only negative actions. The risk is that some leaders might decide to avoid negative actions by avoiding all actions. They might abdicate their leadership by never coaching or mentoring women, or by never meeting with women without a witness. It’s important to track positive leadership actions as well as negative actions. Below are a few examples of survey items that do that.
- Leaders in my location are generous to me with their time, coaching and mentorship.
- The people I work with try to make me feel welcome, included and valued as a member of the team.
- My manager invests in professional relationships with women as well as with men.
We’ve used survey items to illustrate leading indicators, but surveys are just one of many tracking strategies. Organizations use focus groups that look for signs and warning signals, and they analyze patterns of HR complaints.
We’ll highlight a couple of other considerations before moving off of the accountability topic. First, many organizations are moving to prohibit confidentiality agreements that relate to sexual harassment or misconduct. These prohibitions create transparency and help to build trust. Second, organizational leaders are discovering they need a range of penalties to match the variety of offenses. If all they have is a nuclear option, they find they never use it. They need to have punishments that are proportional to the infractions.
Accountability systems work to the extent that they influence behavior. One of the behaviors we want to influence is the demand for quality training. Too often, the demand for sexual harassment training comes from HR or legal departments, instead of from the leaders and employees who need the skills. The result is unmotivated learners who do the minimum to comply. A well-designed accountability system changes that.
When leaders get feedback that tells them they are below their improvement target, it motivates them to seek help. This help often takes the form of training. In this way, the accountability system creates a pull function for training.
When it comes to training, the mistake organizations make is to educate, rather than to train. Education is about information, while training is about behavior. Sexual harassment/misconduct training needs to employ deliberate practice in realistic situations. Ideally, participants practice with the very people they will use the skills with in the future.
For example, if the skill is “how to ask for mentoring from a male manager who is employing defensive management,” then the deliberate practice should be between female employees and their male bosses. Implementing this kind of relevant training with real participants allows managers and employees to raise their genuine concerns. It creates a safe environment where frank and candid dialogue can add to the skills themselves. When it comes to the topics trained, the typical mistake is to focus on process steps — the outline of a process — instead of on the skills required to make the process work. For example, people are trained in the steps to follow when reporting an incident. Steps and outlines should be outlined in one-pagers that can be easily accessed on a web portal. They don’t belong in training.
Training should be reserved for difficult interactions, what to do when the process turns emotional, high-risk or unsafe.
Below are a few to consider:
- How to speak up when someone unintentionally steps over the line.
- How to intervene when you see harassment, inappropriate behavior or suspicious behavior.
- What to do when you have unconfirmed suspicions.
- How to respond to an accusation you believe is untrue — or partially untrue.
These are important skills for dealing with negative behaviors. However, we find it is every bit as important to build skills for positive behaviors that may be at risk, as employees seek to avoid any appearance of harassment or misconduct. Below are a few of these skills to consider:
- How to mentor and coach all of your employees.
- How to welcome new employees and help them feel valued.
- How to handle “touchy” situations such as hugs, pats on the back, etc.
While training is important, it can’t replace open and ongoing communication. This is the final area we turn to: how to make sure people speak up and are heard before awkward situations become unacceptable.
The mistake here is to assume people will speak up when they have concerns. Too often, they don’t. Effective organizations create systems, rituals and opportunities that encourage and enable people to speak up.
These systems don’t need to be focused exclusively on sexual harassment and misconduct. In fact, they work best when they check for a broader range of concerns.
At the personal level, check for psychological safety: do people feel safe, respected and confident? If they don’t, their participation and engagement will suffer in many ways. And, of course, they won’t speak up about anything as sensitive as sexual harassment or misconduct.
At the social level, conduct regular check-ins with opinion leaders with affinity groups from across your organization. Use one-on-ones and focus groups to “take the temperature” of different teams and departments.
At the structural level, use surveys to gather anonymous and confidential data from people who might not be willing to speak up on the record.
When evaluating your harassment strategies, remember that none of these actions is a silver bullet. In fact, with stubborn problems, you shouldn’t look for silver bullets. Instead, you should overwhelm the problem with multiple solutions. The #MeToo movement continues to create momentum, even generating what some call cultural crisis. And a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Use the momentum of this crisis within your organization to create lasting, healthy work environments for everyone.
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