Recent revelations of widespread sexual harassment in the workplace and groundswell of the #MeToo movement have moved this highly charged topic to center stage. Experts agree that sexual harassment is not about sex; it’s about power, or rather, the abuse of power. How has the topic of harassment or abuse of power been addressed in your organization?
Current events have presented the perfect opportunity for productive conversations in the workplace about leadership and power within our teams. While some business leaders still consider the issue of harassment/abuse one which is not relevant to them or their organization, it is a naïve perspective. The use of influence, intimidation and even bullying tactics by leaders to gain success is extremely relevant to us all. Regardless of who you are, your code of behavior or your past experiences, if you are a leader in your organization, the topic of sexual harassment and intimidation/power in the workplace has tremendous relevance; because it is not just your own behavior and experiences that are relevant, it’s the attitudes, behavior and experiences of every member on your team. It is highly unlikely that among the team you lead, there is not one person who has acted inappropriately or experienced inappropriate behavior at some point in their career. As leaders, each of us needs to self-reflect and check our organizations to ensure we are not willing or unwilling participants in a culture that tolerates harassment.
How are members of your team interacting with each other? Are you and your team up to date on what is considered unlawful harassment in today’s workplace? Leaders must seek the facts and educate team members relative to what is appropriate behavior – within the organization, with external vendors and customers and during and after business hours. In sales, specifically, we have many social interactions with our colleagues and customers outside of normal business hours. These situations in no way change the rules of appropriate behavior. Harassment and intimidation have no clock.
The relevance of sexual harassment to our business reality is real. Consider the numbers associated with this issue. According to Business Management Daily, “Last year alone, harassment cost U.S. companies more than $160 million in EEOC settlements – an all-time high. And that was before the #MeToo revolution. (Fact: The EEOC saw a fourfold increase in visitors to the sexual harassment section of its website after the Harvey Weinstein news came out!)”
The vast majority of business leaders view harassment as heinous behavior that falls outside of our ethical code. From this perspective, it is easy to think such behavior happens somewhere else, and not in our organizations. Ignoring any problem doesn’t make it go away; ignoring the topic of harassment/intimidation in the work place is a crisis waiting to happen. Your HR department is an essential resource for your own education and that of your team, as well as in setting policies and reporting procedures that keep everyone protected.
One key step leaders can take to prevent harassment issues and penalties is to be aware of and sensitive with our own attitudes and words on the subject. The topic of harassment is emotionally-charged for many individuals, and for that reason, we must address it from a position of logic (adherence to EEOC guidelines) and consistency, and in a manner that focuses on common ground rather than division.
The #MeToo movement is powerful and relevant, and has clearly told us that we have to be respectful and vigilant with our teams at all times. Harassment and abuse in the workplace negatively impacts individuals and the organization as a whole, and is unacceptable at any time, period. Great leadership is about vigilance, foresight, setting the example of acceptable behavior, and most importantly, having the courage to not accept behavior that endangers your team members, your organization and you personally.