By Christopher Stephens
THE seemingly endless sexual misconduct allegations of recent weeks make it clear that too many businesses have profound and systemic deficiencies that perpetuate a toxic work environment. The question now is how can companies create and maintain safe and dignified workplaces for women?
There are four necessary components of a sexually hostile workplace: The first is a morally — even psychologically — deficient bad actor with a capacity and inclination for debasement. The second is a disparity in power between the abuser and the victim that empowers the abuser by playing to his worst impulses and sense of entitlement.
Third is a workplace environment that ingrains an impression in both the powerful and the victim that complaints are useless or even harmful, as they will be ignored or met with shame or reprisal. This component is particularly prevalent in hierarchical corporate cultures that reinforce the notion that the comfort and safety of subordinates are less important than the aggressors’ entitlement to their excesses, indulgences, and even a degree of misbehavior.
In such a workplace, exalted status results from the seniority of a person’s position or his ability to generate revenues or exert an outsized influence on the success of the enterprise. Here, management values those qualities over staff safety as well as common decency.
The fourth component is complicity by senior management — real or perceived — that creates an air of tolerance of reprehensible behavior. These are the corporate stewards or board overseers that turn a blind eye towards misbehavior and, in some cases, act to conceal it.
An unfortunate reality of the human condition is that occasional bad actors and their bad behavior are a mathematical and anthropological certainty in business and elsewhere.
But internal management and governance frameworks can avoid the hiring and promoting of such people, and can deal with them when they do appear.
These systems can mitigate the risks and impact of their actions, build staff confidence and morale, and save corporate reputations. It is incumbent on the management and boards of directors of all business enterprises to take reasonable steps to implement a few simple safeguards.
The first step is to adopt a clear code of conduct that requires all personnel to treat their colleagues and others with dignity and respect, and includes sanctions for mistreatment, including immediate suspension and termination. Senior managers should also be required to enforce standards and be disciplined for their failure to act deliberately on allegations of disrespect, bullying, or harassment.
The second is a whistle-blower protection policy that shields the identity of accusers, protects them from reprisal, and punishes retaliators.
Third is a process that enables a thorough investigation of allegations by professionals who are sufficiently independent from the accused and his work unit to ensure their objectivity and engender the confidence of all staff. Fourth is a training regimen that instills awareness and coaching on required behavior, practices and procedures, for both new staff and periodic refreshers for all staff.
These rules and processes are necessary, but alone will not avoid or rectify a toxic workplace.
There is no substitute for establishing and constantly reinforcing a corporate culture defined by a shared set of values, attitudes, and standards. These are the guiding principles that dictate behavior and expectations at all levels of the enterprise.
The list of values may vary with different companies, but must include certain “core” values that are fundamental and nonnegotiable, rather than merely aspirational.
Among these are dignity and mutual respect between all employees, and the commitment of senior management to ensure a physically and emotionally safe workplace. A strong corporate culture underpinned by such values informs the way staff interact and work. It forms the basis on which important decisions are made, including hiring, training, evaluating performance, and rewarding staff.
It will also strengthen the reputation of the company and its managers by providing it the opportunity to walk-the-talk and to demonstrate good corporate character and integrity.
As the father of three girls soon to enter the workforce, I find recent news stories stomach-churning and terrifying. But these events also present an opportunity to highlight these important issues and to underscore the urgency of addressing them. Harassment and bullying exist throughout society, but corporate leaders have a special responsibility as caretakers of the business communities they lead.
It’s well-past time to act, as a matter of basic decency and as a moral imperative. Moving quickly to impel dignity in our workplaces will boost staff morale and confidence in management, reduce liability and, ultimately, contribute to the success of the enterprise.
Christopher Stephens is General Counsel at the Asian Development Bank.