Leaders are scrambling to address the recent epidemic of sexual harassment allegations––and no organization is immune.
Most of them will fail––badly. Here’s why…
The first response is to develop and implement new policies. This is understandable and in most cases, futile. Most organizations already have some kind of code of conduct, yet accusations continue to surface daily.
People continue to behave badly.
Other people cover for the bad actors or simply don’t report abuse.
Victims and targets remain silent.
And leaders trivialize or ignore reports and obvious signs and sweep many cases under the proverbial rug.
Courage––or more to the point––the lack of it.
Think about it. Why do so many abusers get away with it for so long? Why is that once a situation finally surfaces, there are so often multiple witnesses who suddenly reveal that they’ve known about the behavior for some time? Why were so many people willing to excuse or minimize rumors and reports for so long?
Fear. Lack of courage.
Without courage, you may as well take your new code of conduct and distribute it on toilet paper rolls in your organization’s rest rooms.
So who is afraid? And why?
Courage is not the absence of fear. The absence of fear is stupidity. Courage is your ability to act in spite of fear. Courage is your willingness to do what needs to be done in the face of fear.
The victim or target of an abuser may certainly be afraid. This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
This fear can be worse if the abuser is physically dominating or violent, or if the abuser holds a position of authority that can dramatically affect one’s career or reputation. This is perfectly understandable, but as much as possible, we’ve got to change this attitude.
Next is the fear of reprisal. This comes in several forms…
What if you’re wrong? What if you back an accusation or respond to a situation and you find out the accusation is false? This is a legitimate fear and yes, you should make damn sure of your facts before you take an action that may destroy someone’s career or life.
You may also fear retribution. Revenge can be costly, especially coming from someone in a position of authority or influence.
You may fear loss.
Look at the roster of recent high-profile abusers. These are often top producers or earners. They are often important people who have contributed much to the success of their organizations. Sometimes they are the sole reason for the organizations success. In all these cases action against that person can affect, even ruin the company and dramatically impact the lives of everyone who works there.
Fear is rational and understandable. To take license with a well known quote, fear itself is not what we should fear.
Fear is a survival mechanism. It’s a physiological response to potential as well as imminent threats. It’s a signal––and we should pay attention. It can also help keep us from acting impulsively, whether that’s jumping into a dangerous situation or firing someone before all the facts are in.
Let’s get back to courage and how cultivating courage in your organization can help reduce the potential for sexual harassment.
As I said, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather acting in spite of it. Start early.
The vast majority of sexual harassment cases start small––with innocuous incidents of incivility or subjectively inappropriate behavior. Remember, however, that the only person who can determine unwanted behavior is the recipient. You cannot excuse bad behavior against someone else simply because you would tolerate the same behavior yourself.
If someone is making off-color comments or taking even seemingly innocent physical liberties, the time to address that behavior is now. This goes for the target as well as witnesses. It goes especially for mangers and leaders who have an obligation to secure a safe and productive environment for the people you serve.
Responding to the Harvey Weinstein case, Matt Damon came under fire for his comments about the different levels of alleged abuse. He said: “I do believe there’s a spectrum of behavior…You know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?” (Newsweek) Yes. As difficult as it is to hear, he is right. But the vast majority of abuse, harassment and assault cases start with distasteful jokes or a “pat on the butt” that went unchallenged.
To be fair to Damon, he continued…
“Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.”
And the best way to keep them from being “conflated” is to address them early. Firmly––and courageously.
To the target: If you don’t like the way someone is treating you––say something. Immediately. Don’t let it pass. For any number of reasons you may be afraid to confront the offender or report their actions, but will letting it slide make you feel any less fearful? The longer you wait the more emboldened the approaches are likely to be and––the greater your fear.
And when you let bad behavior fester, you are exposing others to unwelcome or even dangerous behavior. How many times have you heard victims say they wished they’d spoken up sooner? How many of them talk about the agony, torment and guilt they’ve suffered in their silence? Especially when their tormentor abuses someone else!
To witnesses: Say something!
You may be in a better or stronger position to confront the offender. Make the report. You would want support from others if you were a target of unwanted behavior, wouldn’t you?
To leaders: Have the courage to respond!
Unless leaders and managers have the courage to act, your policy or code of conduct is meaningless. It has no weight of authority.
It takes guts to confront a top performer. It takes even more to confront this person who might be a trusted associate, friend––or even a superior.
Your fear in these situations is understandable––even rational. However, your lack of courage and action is inexcusable. Face your fear. It is your responsibility as a leader to express courage. It’s your responsibility to do the right thing––even when it’s difficult. Courage means doing the right thing the right thing is uncomfortable, inconvenient and sometimes even expensive.
Regarding expense and profitability, you can take these two facts to the bank:
#1 Any bad behavior you tolerate will eventually cost you far more than anything you do to stop it early.
#2 It is probably already costing you much more than you realize.
You can choose to do nothing––like so many other have. Just remember that when the ostrich sticks his head in the sand, his hind parts are plainly exposed for a good kicking. Fail to act––courageously–– and you will pay a much higher price.
What happens to leaders and managers who are found to have ignored, covered or even tacitly condoned abuses once they’re found out? First, like it or not, you’ve harmed or contributed to the harm of others. And––once exposed any good work you’ve ever done may be completely destroyed.
Courage must become a discipline for a leader. It is something you need to practice––early and continually. More than any other qualities, people expect courage, compassion and wisdom from leaders––at any and all levels.
I don’t believe we can ever eradicate bad behavior and abuse in the workplace––or in society for that matter. However, we can eliminate most abuse and prevent the escalation of most cases…
If we commit to face our fears and face this terrible issue––with courage.