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Leader accountability is the key to more effective anti-sexual harassment training, says Dr. Marsha Ershaghi Hames.

Here’s Hames, who advises corporate ethics and compliance programs, explaining why it’s so critical today — and how to build it into your company culture.

Where lies power, lies increased risk. Business leaders have the power – and responsibility – to prevent sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse in the workplace, especially through their anti-sexual harassment training. The higher up one is in an organization, the greater the risk.

As the headlines demonstrate, neglecting this responsibility is costly, reputationally and financially. Most importantly, the human cost is irreversible. Fear and mistrust can drive a victim to feel powerless.

So what leads to an environment in which well-intended leaders forget what it’s like to be powerless? If you look at some recent cases of sexual harassment, misconduct and sexual assault, the answer seems to be the economics of power. We see multiple instances of victims of harassment attempting to speak out and having their claims fall upon deaf ears, or even having their claims result in retaliation and systemic inaction from management.

Unfortunately, “motivated blindness” has surfaced as a common issue at the highest levels of organizations, from front-line management through the C-suite and board of directors.


Paradigm shift: Trust and greater transparency

Two variables have emerged in the recent public discourse: trust and transparency.

Trust in institutions, governments, corporations and — most importantly — leaders, is at a low.  Historically, the victims emerge as powerless. They have to settle, resign, change departments or operate in a state of fear. But the tide is changing, with the explosion of transparency throughout social media platforms and an epic national discourse around respect and ethical behavior in the workplace. The powerless are taking their narratives to public forums in the media, and the economics of power are shifting.

Indeed, the public discussion around responsibility and accountability is putting the highest levels of organizations, including the board of directors, in the spotlight. For example, The Wynn Resorts board is being hit with lawsuits from shareholders for its inaction in the face of former CEO Steve Wynn’s alleged repeated acts of sexual harassment. The alleged actions of Steve Wynn, and his board’s decision to settle or allow abuse to continue, are under close examination. The Michigan State University board of directors is facing intense public scrutiny for its inaction in response to Larry Nassar’s decades of serial sexual abuse. After extensive public pressure, Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University, resigned. In her resignation she stated: “To the survivors, I can never say enough that I am so sorry that a trusted, renowned physician was really such an evil, evil person who inflicted such harm under the guise of medical treatment. I know that we all share the same resolve to do whatever it takes to avert such tragedies here and elsewhere.”

Anti-harassment training: What’s changed?

One of the typical knee-jerk reactions when attempting to address sexual harassment is to train “the little guy.” With increased regulatory requirements, general compliance training fatigue is at an all-time high. Compounding this stress is the fact that, unfortunately, when top leadership is under investigation, the larger workforce receives more training on sexual misconduct. Whereas the research indicates that more effective anti-sexual harassment training strategies are those that target and engage with leaders first. Spotlighting the role and responsibility of leaders is even more critical today.

In order for anti-sexual harassment training to have an impact, the dialogue needs to start around the role and accountability of leaders in modeling the organization’s policies and decision-making. This builds credibility, transfers responsibility to those who are shepherds of the corporate culture on the ground and promotes ongoing opportunity for healthy dialogue. Effective compliance and ethics programs reach across the table to engage and collaborate with HR leaders.

Training on sexual harassment also frequently misses the mark in other key ways. Most training programs focus heavily on laundry lists of specific rules and forbidden behaviors, and focus too little on the underlying causes and enablers of harassment. The most effective anti-harassment training programs look deeper: They raise awareness of right versus wrong behavior by exploring the nuances behind practices and behaviors that lead to sexual misconduct.

Specifically, effective anti-harassment training programs focus on two main elements:

  • They establish a single ethical standard of behavior across all levels of a company, and
  • They examine the intent and emotional impact of potentially harassing behaviors.


A single standard of behavior 

It’s important that people in an organization are taught early on that everyone – leaders, managers and employees alike – are held to the same standards of ethics and accountability. When certain groups or individuals are given preferential treatment or protection when it comes to harassing behavior, it enables a culture of fear and silence in which people won’t come forward about misconduct.

Organizations that demonstrate more transparency around their procedural justice practices can build greater trust in the system and promote more speaking out. Taking action, rather than paying lip service to the “company’s commitment,” really matters. A common thread in countless cases of sexual harassment is a pattern of the victim raising their concern repeatedly, but having their concerns fall on deaf ears. In extreme cases, complaints about harassment are even met with formal disciplinary measures, up to and including termination of employment.

This phenomenon is especially prevalent when the perpetrator is in a position of power over the victim, which shows how gulfs in authority can give rise to preferential, unequal treatment. Without building a workplace culture that assumes equal treatment of everyone regardless of authority, performance or seniority, employees will likely cease to speak up at all. A key first step toward building a more equitable work culture is training leaders early on about the universal standards that everyone in the organization are held to, from the workforce, through middle, senior and top management.


Action-based learning: Listening up

Less than 2% of front-line leaders are trained to be active listeners. Yet the research shows that nearly 60% of the workforce will voice claims of misconduct to front-line management. Managers are your front line.  How they hear, how they respond and take action matters. Inaction serves a devastating blow. Decades of inaction have laid the foundation for today’s #MeToo movement.


Examine intent and emotional impact

Many anti-harassment training programs lean heavily on lists of policies and specific forbidden behaviors, but this can miss key nuances. First, certain behaviors might circumvent rules, but still be intended to harass. Second, some innocuous behaviors could end up being punished unfairly. This is where examinations of the intent and emotional impact of people’s actions are so crucial.

Further, it’s important to unpack uncomfortable situations, such as bystander/observer nuances.

Harassment prevention training is often the first introduction employees have to a company’s attitudes and expectations surrounding workplace sexual misconduct: In other words, it often shapes their first perception of how a company’s culture handles harassment. And too many anti-harassment training programs forget to address key questions about living the company’s values. These are the ethical standards that all colleagues must be held to, such as greater self-awareness around leader empathy, listening and responsibility. These are key complexities in how leaders respond to harassing behavior and report misconduct. By addressing these crucial concerns, anti-harassment training programs are more likely to prevent harassment before it happens, and develop all colleagues to respond appropriately when it does.


For more information on providing effective training for your supervisors and employees, please contact Jane Sterling at 845-471-1200.