What was unimaginable a year ago has occurred: a group of employees actually took to the streets in 10 cities around the country, protesting that their company has not done enough to combat sexual harassment in the workplace. Leadership, they said, should provide stronger policies, more training for managers, a more effective way to report incidents, and a committee dedicated to addressing sexual harassment issues.
The story took me aback…employees protesting because they actually want policies and a stronger company response? Wow!!!
The frustrated souls that protested were employees of McDonald’s, but they could have come from anywhere. After all, a quick skim of the headlines over the past week alone reveals that the Dallas Mavericks have been under investigation for numerous reports of sexual harassment; the CEO of CBS was removed over allegations of the same; and Pope Francis has been accused of covering up knowledge of decades of abusive behavior by clergy in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, in the US our nation is embroiled in debate as to whether an allegation of sexual assault should be believed and then allowed to preclude the appointment of a Supreme Court justice.
Clearly, the issues that prompted the #MeToo movement haven’t diminished, and no sector is immune. The circumstances in every one of these stories – and so many others like them – are complex. But perhaps most importantly, what is striking about this latest development is that our employees want us to do more to make these kinds of problems stop. The question is, what is it that we should be doing?
It’s a hard question to answer, because there are a number of challenges involved. Policies, training, whistleblower lines and committees are important steps, but at the end of the day, they don’t change behavior. So what does?
About a year ago, as we read story after story in the news about #MeToo (at the time still limited to Hollywood), we at ECI set aside our original plan for the fall Best Practice Forum (BPF) so that we could put together an agenda dedicated to “Building a Respectful Workplace.” We figured that not only do we need to spend time really understanding the issues that have led to this crisis in our workplaces; we need to focus on solutions. We asked, what’s the opposite of an environment where people are sexually harassed…and going beyond that bullied, or discriminated against? The answer, we decided, is a workplace where every individual is given an equal opportunity; where they are encouraged to raise their voices and they are empowered with a sense of dignity for the innate value that they bring to the table.
If you have read this far and you are disappointed that instead of offering solutions, I’m promoting an event, I ask for your forgiveness and a measure of your patience. If I had all the answers on my own, I would write them here. What I do know is that the #MeToo movement will not be ended until we truly delve deeply into the root causes, and we start and continue a productive dialogue about the cultures we have created and the ways we can change the way we treat one another. That’s what the upcoming BPF is all about.
I won’t lie – it was easy for us to come up with the topic, and even easier to envision the end goal. But putting together the agenda has been hard! After all, if the answer was as straightforward as better understanding the law, or improving our communications and training delivery, many of you would have solved the problem by now. Companies checked that box a year ago when the #MeToo stories first surfaced.
What makes me particularly proud of the agenda we finally developed for the BPF is that it takes a multi-faceted and discussion-based approach to understanding, and then addressing, the root causes of the issues we continue to face. After all, sexual harassment in the workplace is really a matter of:
- Power, and its abuse;
- Unconscious biases that drive our behavior;
- Opportunities that are given to some, but blocked for others;
- Fear of speaking up in our cultures; and sometimes,
- Predators who rise to power in our midst.
The other thing that excites me about this event is that we will go far beyond just ‘admiring the problems.’ We plan to work together to identify solutions and emerging best practices. We’ll look at ways to leverage the systems that most organizations already have in place, including:
- Core values;
- Equal opportunity and performance management systems;
- Processes for identifying high risk individuals; and,
- Crisis and reputation management protocols.
Perhaps most of all, we’ll talk about culture and the interpersonal dynamics that we need to change so that we can more productively relate to each other. We’ll focus on the resources that we need in our workplaces, and we’ll revisit the systems we encourage employees to use when they need to raise and solve sensitive issues. We’ll also consider the best possible ways to respond and support the traumatized individuals who report that they have been mistreated in our organizations, as well as the individuals who are alleged to have been the perpetrators.
If we, as participants in the BPF, come away from this event with a feeling of helplessness, or we don’t identify any new strategies for diminishing the risk of #MeToo in our workplaces…I will be sorely disappointed. The experts we’ve invited are going to challenge us, but the conversation we will have together will move the needle. I’m confident of that and I hope you will take the time to join us.
Visit the ECI Events page for details about the upcoming BPF and our other events.
Patricia Harned is the Chief Executive Officer of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative