Category Archives: Workplace Sexual Harassment

It’s Not Altruism. Just Good Leadership

Reprinted with permission from my 5/26/18 column in Business Ethics Magazine  

Leaders who believe they have a responsibility to create conditions so that employees can flourish aren’t altruists. They’re just good leaders equally committed to maximizing financial success. They know the two are connected. They also know engagement occurs when employees feel accepted and valued for their contributions. These leaders understand the role respect plays in flourishing so they pay attention to, and address, issues like bigotry, sexual harassment and exclusion before talented people leave or the culture becomes toxic.

When big or small companies miss the mark on paying attention to respect and are in the headlines or become a cautionary tale (because we know someone who works there) it raises the obvious question of how could the CEO, senior leaders or Human Resources not see or act in time?

What we know about conduct is that when leaders model and insist that certain behaviors are a foundational priority and condition of working at a company, a culture shows different results than leaders just expecting we all understand how we should behave. The discrepancy illustrates the chasm between aspirational values and values that are actual cultural building blocks that define how an organization treats customers and each other. The defining question: how important is it to leaders that employees feel safe and have a sense of belonging?

If the “yes” is without enough anchors supporting it, the companies navigating current problems remind us that good intentions may win some diversity awards (as the three companies below have won) but won’t create sustainable change.

What follows are recent examples of what isn’t working and some suggestions of what companies can do to create conditions so that employees have the opportunity to flourish.

Visa, Nike and Microsoft

Leaders at Visa and Nike apparently failed to know female employees complained of misconduct, discrimination and a “bro culture” but now have culture change on their radar. After many female senior leader departures, Visa CEO Alfred F. Kelly, Jr.  met in May with women executives about advancement issues and inappropriate behavior they’ve experienced. Visa has also just created a Women’s Advisory Group. At Nike women, who’d said they’d been marginalized and sexually harassed with no action taken, initiated a survey. The survey results were left on Chairman, President and CEO Mark Parker’s  desk. Subsequent investigation into behaviors resulted in 11 senior executives resigning or losing their jobs.

Microsoft is among technology companies dealing with complaints of a “bro culture” and gender discrimination. An April 2018 Seattle Times article (“’I felt so alone’: what women at Microsoft face and why many leave”) captures the isolation, discouragement, bias and lack of support (from human resources as well as leaders) reported by media about women in other companies.

Creating conditions so employees can flourish

2018 isn’t our first rodeo for diversity and inclusion. The business case for diversity has been made, reiterated with new data for gender diversity and there are even CEO testimonials on business impact.  The human case for diversity has been evident for decades. However, it seems in change and uncertainty — where innovation, collaboration and conversations about new ways of seeing and doing are badly needed — there is an even greater dependence for some to surround themselves with “people like us” and act out unacceptable behavior to gain dominance and control over others. When unchecked by leaders, any sense of belonging by those harmed – and those watching who know it could also happen to them — is destroyed.

Companies of all sizes have been addressing in some way issues of bigotry, sexual harassment and exclusion because they know it’s illegal and toxic to a work environment. The bigger question is how good is their information about what is actually going on? And, are actions being taken designed to support employees in flourishing? Some suggestions for consideration:

Augmenting what CEOs know

First-hand information is the most useful.

  • Most CEOs need to get out of their offices more often to evaluate if their sense of reality is corroborated by what they hear and see. For example, what might Nike and Visa CEOs have known far sooner if they’d practiced managing by walking around (MBWA) and had a series of random skip level meetings to listen and learn?
  • As town meetings can inhibit some from asking questions, CEOs might encourage questions through an internal blog.  They may find their time well spent scanning comments and arrange with the internal communications team the best way to handle CEO responses.
  • Once a quarter, CEOs could initiate an open door policy for a few days, and encourage direct reports to do the same, to encourage two-way exchanges.
  • CEOs need to send Human Resources and their direct reports a clear message that they want unfiltered, accurate information about how complaints and problems are being handled – particularly those that address whether employees feel safe, have experienced intimidation, harassment or exclusion and how issues of fairness and respect are being addressed. Presumably someone from the CEO’s office is on the company’s diversity committee to give feedback on how issues are being addressed there.

Using information to strengthen culture

Speaking at a global business ethics symposium on diversity and inclusion this month, State Street Corporation’s  Chief Diversity Officer Paul Francisco indicated that a lot of implicit bias happens in workplaces when people are under stress. He advised slowing down to ask oneself if a decision is being made with the right context and facts or just because it feels easier.

How feedback is given, support provided and values linked with behaviors influences a workplace environment.

  • Research indicates some managers are uncomfortable giving feedback. In addition to getting tips from Human Resources, here are additional suggestions.  It’s important that employees receive constructive support and encouragement so they know what they are doing well and have specific suggestions for improvement. For employees violating policies, consequences need to be clear and consistent.
  • Managers should ask employees what support they need. Getting employees’ ideas in each team can help managers understand how to support team members and encourage them to support each other. This fuels a spirit of community and identifies values most important in that team.
  • Values need to be cultural building blocks with behaviors identified. Nike is an example of a company whose mission and 11 guiding principles are heavily brand driven.  The principle, “Do the right thing,” needs elaboration especially in light of Nike’s current crisis. Elaborating on what is meant by that principle could serve as an opportunity for teams to discuss how that should show up in how they treat each other.

BlackRock’s  Managing Director and Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion Jonathan McBride  has said his goal is for the company’s 14,000 employees to have a sense of belonging. He is actively discouraging employees from surrounding themselves with people “just like them” because “it creates risk, hampers resiliency and lowers performance.” McBride is using survey questions to get more data on employees’ sense of belonging to the company, team and global function.

Information provides insight and ideas for leaders to build understanding, strengthen culture, learn from mistakes and work together with employees to create a sense of belonging and safety so employees are motivated to do their best work.

It isn’t altruism, just good leadership.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics, is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University and Senior Fellow for Social Innovation at the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

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The Week in Ethics: Fraternities, Charlie Rose and the Hope of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving invites our being more aware of others’ impact on us. How it feels to be seen, heard and valued for who we are. When we think about gratitude, it is people who generally first come to mind: those who have made a positive difference in our lives.

Events this year have shown what happens when our emotional intelligence is undeveloped or just shut down. When we are blind to our impact on others and they become merely a means to an end that works for us. We lose touch with our own humanity and ignore the essential elements of dignity in our treatment of others.

Two examples:

It was excruciating to read the November (2017) Atlantic Magazine’s “A Death at Penn State” about the hazing and death of sophomore Tim Piazza. To protect themselves and their Beta Theta Pi fraternity, his 16 fraternity brothers didn’t call 911 for 12 hours while he lay in pain and semi consciousness after falling head-first down a flight of stairs. The irony was that for security reasons the fraternity house had security cameras throughout, which is how the picture emerged of Tim’s fall and the next 12 hours. And yet there was still blindness.

photo of courageFor fraternity brothers who rationalize they are following a manly tradition, Penn State and any university whose “zero tolerance” is empty, alumni who shirk responsibility and national fraternity organizations who could control the harm and don’t, the unseeing eye leads to sexual assaults, traumatic injuries and student deaths.

The irony of the blind eye and myopic self-interest is that it makes us blind to ourselves and anything we think we stand for.

The current wave of powerful and prominent men — movie producers, actors, comedians, journalists, talk show hosts, executives and others — who’ve been blind to whether their serial sexual behavior toward those with little power was welcome — are learning it wasn’t.

Forced silence out of fear of reprisals has given way to women and men coming forward in the wake of sexual harassment moving out of the shadows of rumor. From ongoing revelations of sexual harassment at Fox News Division, to movie producer Harvey Weinstein last month and more than 30 other leaders in their fields since, distinctions between mutual consent and abuse of the power have made headlines.

Yesterday, (11/21/17) journalist and former talk show host Charlie Rose was fired from his roles at CBS, PBS and Bloomberg TV. The reason? Inquiries into the sexual misconduct allegations made by former employees and others associated with his work. In talking to a friend, we expressed a mutual sense of betrayal over the two sides of Charlie Rose. The person on TV who was so gifted at bringing out the essence of whomever he interviewed with a seeming stellar emotional intelligence. And how he acted when the camera wasn’t rolling, apparently so disconnected from himself; blind to the effect his unwanted attentions had on others.

Ironically, last week Rose interviewed columnist David Brooks about Brooks’ take on sexual harassment. Brooks talks about the harasser’s “inability to put yourself in the mind of the person you are pushing yourself all over. It is sort of humanistic blindness to another human being’s experience.”

So where does Thanksgiving this week come in?

In our digital world where we are looking to discoveries in artificial intelligence to advance productivity and innovation, we are still grappling with what emotional intelligence means in leadership — both leadership of ourselves and the impact we have on others. It is important to talk about this with people we trust to better understand ourselves and them.

The hope of Thanksgiving is that it can be a pause point.

Either enjoying our own company or surrounded by family or friends, it offers a time to  focus on our heart, not our head. To consciously take off any blinders that stop us from seeing our humanity and its connection to everyone else’s. It is a time to think about our impact on others and the impact we’d most want to have.

And in the midst of filling our plate with delicious food, to give more thought to how to feed our souls.

Gael O’Brien, November 22, 2017, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is an Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute, Babson College.