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Leader: What YOU can do about sexual harassment…

Too often we look for a global solution when the greatest impact can be made on an individual basis.

Sure, we can pass laws, draft policy and create regulations for society and our organizations that provide a response to sexual harassment. But if an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure––then it is much more effective to prevent harassment through our individual, often unnoticed acts.

First, let’s clearly define the terms to assure we’re dealing with each situation in the proper scale.

Flirting: It will be a sad world if we completely sterilize our social interactions. Sexual attraction and the act of courtship is a normal and healthy human activity. None of us would exist without it.

Incivility: Sometimes hard to define and it depends on the culture. But most of us know it when we see it or hear it. If someone’s words or actions make someone feel uncomfortable, then it’s most probably crossing a line. If someone is telling you that another person’s words or actions are making them uncomfortable, you as a leader must pay attention.

Harassment: And you can add its close cousin, bullying. Harassment is legally defined, usually on a state level. At this point, it’s gone too far. Better that you had paid attention when is was still in the incivility phase, but now you are absolutely obligated to respond.

Assault: Again from “any unlawful attempt or offer with force or violence to do bodily harm to another, whether from ill will or extreme carelessness…”

Nearly all cases of sexual assault start with incidents of simple incivility…

  • Approaches have been rebuffed yet persist.

  • Inappropriate jokes and comments.

  • Uncomfortable hugging or touching––usually opportunistic.

Look at nearly every high-profile case we’ve learned about recently from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer. From Louis CK to Kevin Spacey. From Bill Clinton to Donald Trump. I chose these cases because in each there are accusations of extreme sexual harassment. In some, there are even accusation of assault.

These cases are typical of how bad behavior starts small. It starts with some degree of testing––an off color remark, a joke or what might be an inappropriate advance. This is the most critical phase.

In nearly every one of these cases it’s now coming to light that the behavior started small, that it was largely ignored or even accepted.

Wouldn’t it be much better if leaders addressed the issue in this initial phase?

Why is it so often the case that the situation expands to full blown harassment or worse––and then you hear from multiple sources that “everyone” knew what was happening all along?

You’ve got to address bad behavior early––in the incivility phase…

Not only for the sake of the subject of unwanted advances, but also to give a fair opportunity to someone who may at this stage be socially awkward, lacking interpersonal skills or simply ignorant to correct their behavior and perhaps make amends.

So again let’s ask the question. Why don’t more leaders step up and handle the situation before it gets out of hand.

First of all, in most organizations there are adult expectations.

Particularly in the workplace, leaders are often and justifiably focused on other issues. “I’m your boss––not your babysitter.”

There is still an expectation that adults will handle minor incidents on their own. To be blunt, if someone is approaching you and the interest is not reciprocal––a supervisor may expect you to handle it yourself and tell them to get lost!

In most situations, this is be a reasonable expectation! However, when the behavior, however minor, is clearly unwelcome yet persistent, it’s time to step up and step in.

The biggest problem comes when there is a disparity of power, when someone is using their influence, status or position as leverage or when there is no clear mechanism to report credible threats. Even worse when the organization brags about a seamless reporting policy––but does not follow-up.

And there is the problem of culture. Different organizational cultures establish vastly different norms for acceptable, or at least tolerable behavior in regard to what separates meaningless banter from incivility.

So what’s a leader to do?

What can YOU do to navigate these variables and provide, as much as possible, a safe, comfortable and productive environment for everyone you serve?

  • Establish clearly what is acceptable in your culture––and what is not. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Learn as much as you can about the different levels of interpersonal behavior that lead to harassment.

  • Clearly understand what constitutes illegal behavior and know your responsibilities.

  • Be responsive to all reports and fair to all parties concerned.

  • Intervene early and provide opportunity, whenever possible, for open dialog and restorative action.

  • When warranted, act swiftly and decisively to address the situation.

Most of all…

Walk the Walk!

How many times do we see a “leader” who has projected a holier-than-thou image later fall as indiscretions and horrific behaviors come to light?

Again, just look at recent cases. Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Al Franken all publicly trumpeted their support of women's rights while facing multiple accusations of their own impropriety. Matt Lauer acted the inquisitor while he was not so secretly committing acts of sexual predation.

These hypocrites have done terrible damage to the credibility of leadership in general. It is perfectly understandable why confidence in business, civic, religious and political leadership is at an all-time low.

It is time to restore this confidence and it starts with one simple but powerful action you can take today––as a leader and as an individual…

Walk the Walk. Model the behavior you expect from others.

Your personal example as a leader is the most powerful force for influencing and inspiring others.


Take stock of the actions steps above, but above all, simply be the best person you can be in your role as a leader. If each of us will simply do that, the results will be powerful.


This is NOT a new problem! Several years ago I highlighted the case of Ashley Alford. At the time, she won the largest settlement for a harassment case in U.S. history at $95 million dollars. Read more here…

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