Sexual Harassment: Let Not the Pendulum Swing
Much good can be said about women having the courage to come forward, and finally being believed, about the sexual harassment they have endured. It is not an exaggeration to describe some of it – by Harvey Weinstein, Mario Batali, Matt Lauer – as horrendous. Nearly every day, we hear about congressmen – Al Franken, Trent Franks, Blake Farenthold – and business executives – Amit Singhal, Gavin Baker, Joe Alexander – to name just the most recent, resigning under pressure. No doubt there are more to come. Like a festering boil, this issue has grown so large that lancing is long long overdue. It is disgusting to observe, but at least now, presumably, some remedies will be applied.
Boards of directors, senior executives, and especially Human Resource departments are being criticized, and rightly so, for failing to protect the victims. They were ignored, disbelieved, sometimes paid off, or put through a labyrinth of tortuous bureaucracy that defeated them. Reforms must be made and action taken, and it appears that this is beginning to happen.
As we move into this phase, however, we need to be mindful of three potential repercussions that will not serve individuals or organizations well.
- Rush to Judgement: The first is the impulse to rush to judgment without careful investigation. Although in this climate it is probably perilous to say, there are people who have been (or will be) falsely accused. Lives can be disrupted and careers destroyed if some over-zealous functionary takes action based on unverified or exaggerated allegations. It is also a sad fact of human nature that if it becomes too easy to take a person down, abuses will inevitably occur.
- Lack of Transparency: The second potential repercussion is exemplified by the Martin Agency. According to the Dec 14 issue of the Wall Street Journal, the Martin Agency abruptly fired its chief creative officer, Joe Alexander, with little explanation. When employees questioned the decision, they were put off. Later it was revealed that he was fired for a pattern of sexual harassment that had been under investigation since mid-November. While the company is to be lauded for acting, the lack of transparency is of concern. Without open discussion, the problem can appear to be merely the actions of a “bad apple,” masking issues of organizational culture or a lack of policy safeguards.
• Chilling Effects: Finally, a more-subtle but equal concern is the impact on women’s career advancement. It is well accepted that career development is immeasurably helped by a close relationship with a mentor. The mentor acts not only as a role model and teacher, but also opens doors to important connections with others in the organization who can help advance one’s career. In addition, substantial business development is conducted in informal settings like restaurants and on golf courses. If concerns about appearances make men reluctant to meet with women outside of the office, or if it becomes dangerous for a woman to have a man as her mentor (or vice versa), both individuals and organizations will suffer.
As a country, especially at this time, we are not known for our predilection for moderation. But prudence and good governance require that we be careful. Let’s resist the impulse to allow the pendulum to swing from tolerance of egregious sexual harassment to imprudent and zealous adoption of rules and regulations, formal and informal, that impede the evolution of true equality and mutual respect.
Sometimes it is helpful to get an outsider’s perspective on matters such as these… Dr. Joanne Irving is an advisor and executive coach helping senior executives improve both their business outcomes and the quality of life for themselves and those around them by staying centered and leading with agility. Find out more.
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