One of today’s most intricate workplace issues involves handling bad behavior by a company founder, popular media personality, rainmaker or other influential person. What makes it complex is the fact that there may not be any reports about the individual’s unprofessional workplace conduct. Also, a high-ranking person’s subordinates may not feel that it’s their place to admonish or report a superior — especially when individuals who have done so in the past faced negative consequences such as termination or demotion.
Additionally, some workplace actions may not entirely be classified as illegal. Therefore, employees may not be aware that there are potential risks associated with certain conduct that may take place on or off the job. For example, employees may exchange text messages with offensive jokes, two employees may engage in a consensual sexual relationship or new members on the team may participate in initiation rituals.
So how do you detect an actual victimizing situation, and what should you do about it? Following are some suggestions.
Pay attention to the rumor mill. What are the well-known secrets? Did the individual personally tell someone? Are there pictures or videos on social media?
Look at the data. Is one department or office a revolving door? Are there a disproportionate number of complaints coming from one place?
Evaluate typical job satisfaction criteria through the lens of a victim. Does an employee’s demeanor change around a certain individual? Are there extraordinary efforts to avoid interacting with a particular person? Is an individual suddenly taking a lot of time off?
Assess whether a potential harasser goes out of his or her way to get alone with a specific worker. Is the door frequently shut for long periods of time during one-on-one meetings? Is the person’s assistant complicit through appointment scheduling?
Observe whether there is an atmosphere of fear. Is there an inordinate amount of yelling? Do people make excuses for why they were treated poorly or disrespected? Does the potential harasser retaliate or ask others to retaliate on his or her behalf?
Take every report seriously. Was a grievance really a joke? Is there a paper trail for complaints and follow-up with the victim, and were sanctions imposed on the harasser? Is there an opportunity to give feedback anonymously or post-employment?
Many employers take the approach that no news is good news. This may not be the best system for fostering a harassment-free or inclusive work culture. To transform the way that things are done around your organization, consider these ideas:
Understand and protect
Seek to understand the scope of the problem in your organization. Conduct an organizational climate survey or hold a focus group to determine what your employees face at work.
Policies are your first line of defense — and offense. It’s important to update your policies regularly, but don’t just stop with the defense, go on the offense. Incorporate harassment education in your new hire orientations. Ensure all new supervisors receive in-depth harassment prevention training and evaluate existing managers on their handling of complaints. Also, provide just-in-time learning (e.g., integrate policies and information during team meetings, before holiday gatherings or for non-diversity-related training sessions).
Empower and engage
Empower employees to speak up. Whether victims or bystanders, you want employees to take action. Provide specific examples of unlawful actions and potentially risky situations — along with actionable items (e.g., “here’s what you can do…”). Ask employees for their suggestions. Finally, get your board involved. Form a board task force or committee to handle high level cases of harassment.
Don’t assume that men are the only harassers or that women are the only victims and don’t be afraid to demote or terminate someone. Seek professional help. Talk to colleagues in your field or consult with industry experts. Don’t wait until you have a huge problem.
Forget about a magic potion. Dealing with this issue is much more complex than most organizations are prepared to deal with because there are so many overlapping and gray areas. Therefore, the best strategy is to take a comprehensive approach and be proactive.