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Harassment is not the right business decision

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I was 21 years old and working in hospitality. I went to my supervisor after some of the male guests were making me uncomfortable, saying things and touching me inappropriately.

Claudia Williams
Claudia Williams - ()

I explained that my breasts had been touched, and that one man had rubbed my arm from shoulder to hand while taking a receipt from my fingertips. My supervisor looked at me and said, “Claudia, they pay a lot of money to be members here.”

Message received. I opted against prostitution as a profession. I found another job and quit.

At that time, I had no idea I would go to law school, become an employment attorney and ultimately become a workplace culture and leadership consultant. It’s nothing if not ironic. Here’s the thing – Title VII of the Civil Rights Law and corresponding state laws that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace have not and do not eliminate its existence.

Women and men have stories. Many haven’t told their stories for fear of committing career suicide or losing dignity and respect or because of responses like Donna Karan’s (questioning whether victims are asking for it).

Enough.

The reason people who behave like Harvey Weinstein are able to engage in the systematic abuse of women in the workplace is because silence is being bought like a bag of groceries. The company approaches harassment like a business decision rather than a crippling, cultural problem. It costs less to buy silence than it does to lose a powerful rainmaker.

When a financial settlement is not accompanied by serious consequences for the bad actor, then we have created a system that enables repeated bad behavior. And when the bad actors are responsible for the financial success of a company, silence is far more favorable than consequences, because consequences may cost the company more than silence. It’s simple math.

But thanks to technology and the ability of stories to spread like wildfire, the cost of silence is becoming increasingly more expensive than the cost of consequences. Third parties, such as sponsors and consumers, have far more influence now than ever before, and they are exercising that power.

There is a reason "second chances" are not called seventh chances or seventeenth chances. We’re human, and we will make mistakes. A mistake is something from which we learn and that we do not repeat. Repeated bad acts, however, are not mistakes. They are conscious choices. That is the recipe for toxic workplace cultures.

We need to be different. We need to reshape the dialogue. We need to end the silence. We need to build cultures where all employees are judged fairly and held to similar, lawful standards of behavior and performance. We need to build meaningful and appropriate workplace relationships that drive accountability, innovation, collaboration and superior performance.

It can be done, but it needs to start from the top with leaders who are willing to say that harassment has no place in their companies. It starts with three simple steps:

  1. Recognize and eliminate stereotyping. Gender stereotypes come in many forms, such as the way we describe ambitious women as compared to ambitious men. We all have worked with ambitious jerks at some point or another. Jerk knows no gender. Focus on the behavior rather than the gender in those circumstances, and address the behavior accordingly.
  2. Hold people accountable for their behavior. It starts with educating employees about the expected standards. Correct employees who make mistakes and provide them with the coaching they need to change their behavior. If that doesn’t work and the bad behavior continues, say enough is enough. Remember – second chances, not seventeenth chances. This applies to all employees, including rainmakers and senior executives.
  3. Revamp the approach to recruiting and retention of employees. As noted by McKinsey & Company, “Women experience a workplace skewed in favor of men.” It’s blatant at each level of potential promotion, starting with first-level management. Even though women make up more than half of the American workforce, they are “18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts.” Ask yourself why. Simply put, women are not performing, on average, 18 percent lower than men. They’re only getting paid as if they are.

Finally, to all of the third parties who have the ability to influence (customers, sponsors, social media gurus), use your voice and your money to demand change. Money talks. For too long, it was having the wrong conversation. 

A former associate general counsel for The Hershey Co., Claudia Williams is founder of The Human Zone, a firm focused on leadership development and employee engagement.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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