Getting Culture Right: It Starts at the Top

Sexual harassment has become a major problem in the workplace. There is a solution. It's tough, and it takes leadership, but it works.

Leading a large organization of people is not unlike raising teenagers. At its core, the goal is to provide enough independence to allow growth and innovation and to fuel excitement about what people are doing, but at the same time to provide the necessary guard rails to help keep focus on the mission and prevent the stray person from getting too far from the flock and encountering danger. Parents are like the C-suite, and their approach to life, their leadership stamina and their commitment are key drivers in the family’s success. When a teenager makes a huge mistake, or perhaps even worse, does harm to himself or others, people often look to the parents. Are they good parents? Strict enough? Involved enough to know what’s going on? Participating enough to influence behavior? Modeling good values and social norms? The same is true when a business finds itself embroiled in scandal or accusations of wrongdoing. See also: How to Lead Change in an Organization   Incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace have dominated recent headlines. These examples are not in the gray area of whether there’s hidden bias impeding the path to promotion for women, or whether there’s a systemic gender pay gap, for example. These headlines include overt sexual behavior that most people readily agree is totally inappropriate at work, and that many judges and juries will likely find are illegal, as well. The managers at Microsoft’s Xbox division reportedly sponsored a party with scantily clad waitresses and too much alcohol. Uber has been accused of rampant sexism, sexual harassment and an untenable environment for women employees. Members of the U.S. Marine Corps reportedly have a Facebook site with 30,000 followers on which naked photos of female Marines are posted for all to see, comment on and share. Some of the naked photos were apparently taken without the subject female’s knowledge or permission, and some identify the women by name, rank and duty station. Sadly, these are just a few of the highlights. Examples are plentiful and span all industries. The first questions that came to my mind when I read these headlines are directed at the leadership of the organizations. Have those leaders done something to create or facilitate this behavior at work? Are their policies strict enough? Are those policies enforced? Do the leaders even know what’s going on in their organization? Are they modeling good values themselves? Sound familiar? Teenagers, even though the vast majority of them are wonderful, caring people of good character, don’t always exhibit those characteristics in their behavior. They are notorious risk takers and exercise poor judgment. Parenting them is hard. I’ve discovered recently that the biggest parenting challenge, however, originates not with my own teenagers, but with their friends’ parents. Let’s consider underage drinking. Studies show that the vast majority of students drink alcohol while still in high school. Locking up your alcohol, staying up late to chaperone gatherings in your own home or to greet your teenagers when they arrive home, imposing consequences when you discover your teenager has been drinking and even enlisting professional help if it’s a consistent problem requires stamina and commitment. It disrupts your own social life and your own freedom as a parent. Even more difficult, it draws judgment and scorn from other parents and from your teenager’s friends. If you inform other parents that their own kids are participating in drinking, you could end up being an outcast, and there will almost certainly be negative social consequences for your teenager. It’s hard. And if you don’t, the risks are too scary to imagine. Studies show that teenagers who drink are three times more likely to become addicted than people who start drinking later, and alcohol-related deaths among teenagers (already too frequent) are on the rise. Nonetheless, studies also show that most parents will throw in the towel and ignore the drinking, decide not to inform other parents, fail to follow through with consequences and accept that it’s “normal” for teenagers to drink. My teenager, after all, is a “good” kid. Creating a workplace environment that is hostile to sexual harassment is also hard. Even though the vast majority of men are wonderful, caring people of good character, when together in groups there can easily be a high incidence of inappropriate sexual behavior that is deeply disturbing (and illegal) in the workplace. Corporate leaders may either be unaware of it or may condone it. Either is problematic. Reporting incidents of sexual harassment, or punishing employees who engage in it can draw judgment and scorn from fellow leaders and very often results in negative social consequences for both the victim and the leader. When the consequences of speaking out affect career advancement and rewards, the impulse to stay out of it or ignore it altogether can be overwhelming. And yet the consequences of failing to speak out and stand up to sexual harassment in the workplace can kill your business. Sound familiar? There is a simple solution that will at least eliminate the headlines we’ve seen lately, even if it doesn’t address the whole problem: no safe sex in the workplace. Period. Sex is a personal and private activity that has no place at work. We as humans easily understand that there are certain environments where sexual behavior by adults is always inappropriate. For example, you would be hard pressed to find a person who thinks it acceptable to expose preschoolers to strippers, pornography, aggressive propositioning or naked pictures of parents. Consequently, we don’t do that in preschools, and not because adults suddenly don’t enjoy that type of behavior on their own time, and not because the people who do enjoy that behavior are not “good” people. Instead, adults recognize that preschool is a safe zone in which adult sexual behavior is not appropriate or welcome. A similar mindset at work would be extremely effective in eradicating offensive and illegal behavior. No strippers at work gatherings. No passing around naked pictures of colleagues. No standing by quietly and watching your colleague or boss harass a woman in his organization. Work needs to be a safe zone in which sexual behavior is not appropriate or welcome. See also: Is Your Organization Open to New Ideas?   A plethora of books about how to be a good parent and how to succeed as a corporate leader are readily available. You can read thousands of pages about which seven habits are most important and effective. I offer a simple tip that applies equally to parenting and leadership. It is hard. The consequences of getting it wrong are significant. But when it comes to the big stuff, there are no shortcuts. Stand up to the potential negative social impact and stop your teenager from drinking. Stop your colleagues from bringing sex into the workplace. You will be very glad you did.

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