Preventing, identifying and addressing abuse of power in the workplace has become a priority for virtually every industry across our economy in the wake of the #MeToo movement and a tightening job market, making it an issue no company can afford to ignore.
NMHC’s Leadership Forum on Diversity & Inclusion heard from Patti Perez, an attorney and expert in workplace culture for Emtrain, on best practices to recognize and confront the problem.
Perez challenged attendees to consider that gender-based abuse of power happens even when no one is complaining. When surveyed, 60% of men say sexual harassment rarely or never occurs in their workplace, but 60% of women say they have been exposed to sexual harassment at work. In other words, it isn’t surprising to learn that only one-third of employees say they are comfortable reporting misconduct.
How Did We Get Here?
Part of addressing potential problems is understanding their source. Perez explored the key reasons firms find themselves facing sexual harassment issues.
- Compliance blinders. Too many firms focus almost exclusively on policies and procedures, and have a “document everything” attitude. That approach embeds a high level of suspicion and fear that distracts us from meaningfully addressing workplace dynamics which may lead to abuses of power.
- Failure to intervene early. As an employer, you want your employees to feel free to voice even minor concerns to enable a proactive, productive approach. Giving front-line managers the tools and resources to help them handle these issues instead of only sending complaints to human resources creates both accessibility and accountability. Teaching your managers how to handle problems as they arise may lower the intensity of the situation and lead to more effective solutions, says Perez.
- Culture of Complicity. In too many instances, there is an organizational tolerance of abuse of power and sexual harassment. In some cases, leaders assume problems don’t exist because they don’t receive complaints or aren’t aware of concerns, resulting in a false sense of security that minimizes complaints that do come in.. Sometimes it’s a senior management team that doesn’t understand that a complaint is not just a nuisance and must be addressed.
Avoiding A #MeToo Moment
Perez outlined a few key steps firms can take to prevent an abuse of power situation that could lead to sexual harassment.
- Skip the short-sighted cost-benefit analysis. Too many times companies fail to take action because the harasser is a “high value” employee. But when firms do the math completely and consider reputation risk, low morale, turnover, crisis communications PR, attorney fees and more, the cost is far higher than whatever the star employee is bringing in.
- Reinvent corporate attitudes towards reporting workplace concerns. You can’t fix what you don’t know. Firms should embrace concerns and complaints, and make sure employees not only feel welcome to report, but also trust that you will take action. Creating an early response procedure—and encouraging communication about concerns before they escalate--will go a long way to ensuring that problems don’t grow.
- Think outside the compliance box. If your immediate response is to merely redistribute your harassment prevention policy or require managers to attend training that “teaches” them what harassment is, you’ll fall short. These actions not only don’t stop harassment, they just send the message that you are doing the minimum without a meaningful self assessment.
To earn credibility with your employees, you need to go beyond the minimum. Training based only on compliance is ineffective. Firms should provide training that seeks to impact behavior. It should include effective communications, conflict avoidance and more. And make sure your policies and training send the message that “this is what we believe, this is what we promise, and this what you can expect. This approach can change the narrative and make it clear that your company takes these matters seriously.
- Develop a deliberate plan to include more women in leadership. If you don’t have diversity in your leadership, you may have blind spots you aren’t aware of. Most male corporate leaders aren’t deliberately saying that this behavior is ok, but they may unknowingly perpetuate the culture of complicity.
Perez closed by emphasizing that for firms committed to creating safe, comfortable, productive and profitable workplaces, there is no room for abuse of power and there is no place for leaders who are willing to turn a blind eye.