Workplace Sexual Predators

The word predator has surfaced a lot in conversations over the past week, and not in the context of an eagle hunting its prey. Workplace predatory behaviors in the context of pursuing a sexual agenda is an uncomfortable topic and for many of us in the practice of people management not the kind of conversation we want to have with our employees. Unfortunately, the failure to address and curtail counter-productive behaviors, opens the door for serious challenges later on.

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is bandied around and yet I believe it is not fully understood. Just what is this thing? Think about it in this way:

  • Organizations are made up of groups of people with varying beliefs and attitudes.
  • An organization is conceptualized to provide goods and services  [and knowledge].
  • The organization, as a system, is built on values held by the visionaries and cascaded to the lower levels by those who lead.
  • Behaviors are managed/regulated by internal policies aligned with expected global and legal obligations.
  • There is a pattern to the way the organization functions. The processes lead to an expected outcome.
  • Organizations respond to internal and external stimuli.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) offers in an on-line post by Michael Watkins several definitions but there is one that stands out for the purpose of this discussion.

“Organizational culture is the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.” — Richard Perrin

Culture is a carrier of meaning. Cultures provide not only a shared view of “what is” but also of “why is.” In this view, culture is about “the story” in which people in the organization are embedded, and the values and rituals that reinforce that narrative. It also focuses attention on the importance of symbols and the need to understand them — including the idiosyncratic languages used in organizations — in order to understand culture.

The first half of his thought points to the fact that meaning is an important factor in the organization. How do your employees interpret the symbols and rituals that are policy driven and do policies regulate the behaviors? Put another way, does your policy on sexual harassment effectively carry the meaning that is intended or is it just one other useless electronic piece of data?

Sexual predators are able to thrive in organizations that are not too sure of how to handle reports of harassment. It matters not what the gender of the perpetrator is, although many will suggest that women are more at risk and in organizations were power imbalances are great. For example, a female manager who has been on the receiving end of sexual advances from her superior may not report the matter for a number of reasons. She could be fearful of losing her job because the offense is not something that is easily proven; she may lack faith in the process that will be utilized by the company; she may be blamed by her colleagues who will suggest she must have done something to provoke the attention and lastly she may experience victimization from the perpetrator if nothing is done to progress a zero-tolerance approach.

What should organizations do?

  • Acknowledge that sexual harassment is a reality and is supported by the lack of credible resources to help both the victim and the perpetrator.
  • Acknowledge that invariably, hard evidence may not be available which does not mean the act has not happened.
  • Take every report seriously and document them. If untreated, you will find that toxicity increases and your best talent will leave.
  • Revisit your policy on sexual harassment. Provide information that is user-friendly and for those who wish to remain anonymous, create an opportunity for them to report the challenges without fear.
  • Create meaning around the policy. Simplify and ensure that the symbols and rituals are in sync with a zero-tolerance approach.
  • Be creative in your approach. Re-acquainting your team with the provisions of the policies should not be met with “oh no, not this again!” Invite other leaders to share stories about how they dealt with this challenge by engaging what I refer to as the new generation of collaborative game changers.
  • Create an action driven policy. By that I mean, ensure your audience understands the range of disciplinary actions that will be used to address this silent threat.
  • Train all your supervisory levels to treat reports as confidential concerns and to progress them to the Human Resources Office post-haste.
  • Pay attention to the external culture and its interpretation of sexual harassment and predatory behavior and its influence on your organization. It is not uncommon for employees to think much ado about nothing because of what is an acceptable cultural practice. But as organizations embrace diversity, the focus must be on managing the cross-cultural pool of behaviors, attitudes, values and mores.

By all means not an exhaustive list but there are certainly things to improve. I acknowledge that there are some establishments that will provide difficulty especially those that are driven by powerful interests. I would suggest that you document the instances that created discomfort, by documenting time, place and the comment or action; reach out to counselors who will offer advice on what to do to safeguard your emotional state. If all else fails, determine if the time is right to move on.

© Suzette Henry-Campbell 2014

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