Opinion: Why forcing out figureheads over sexual harassment isn’t enough

The American workplace is facing a reckoning as bombshell reports of sexual harassment are released almost daily. While industry icons like Al Franken, Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein have been unceremoniously removed from their positions of power, changing the decades-old “Keep Quiet” habit will take more than firings or resignations, policy changes or check-the-box trainings.

What it will require is that executives, middle managers and supervisors at every organization step up and lead the way. As stewards of their organizations’ values, reputations, and survival, they must commit to helping prevent, identify, and correct such misconduct. To date, it has been the common habits of inaction, avoidance, and institutional malaise that have prevented progress.

With over 40 years of experience in counseling, investigating and educating on behavior in the workplace, I find that in a vast majority of harassment cases, peers and organizational management almost always have some knowledge of the inappropriate behavior. But those with direct knowledge of such conduct or awareness of the telltale signals often say or do nothing about it. It is business as usual. This willful inaction continues to communicate and reinforce an underlying message: rules are enforced unless you bring in big bucks, clients or industry prestige. Then, you may do what you want – harass, intimidate, bully and assault. You get a pass.

Until leaders make serious, publicly-stated and sincere commitments to ban such conduct, including dismissing any and all who engage in it (when it happens, not when it becomes or is on the cusp of publication by a news organization), there will be little reason for many offenders to change their behavior. And despite the best-intentioned leadership commitments, some people will inevitably continue to behave improperly. These offenders may believe that their power can force others to keep silent.

According to the EEOC’s Study of Harassment in the Workplace, approximately 90 percent of individuals who say they have experienced harassment never take formal action, such as filing a charge or complaint. In these cases, the reluctance to report misconduct is easily understood when you look at the level of retaliation that has occurred against those who reported instances of misbehavior by powerful men like Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood heavyweight went so far as to hire private investigators to intimidate individuals from publicly sharing their accounts.

Organizations, therefore, must devote as much energy to changing the environment from one where individuals suffer in misery instead of speaking out to one where people who have been the victim of inappropriate sexual conduct feel comfortable coming forward. It will take time, courage, consistency and a clear understanding that those who report harassment won’t suffer harm for speaking out.

Ultimately, leaders at all levels must take on the responsibility of acting in ways that support their organization’s values and commitment to respectful, lawful workplaces. They must, through their own behavior, demonstrate that they welcome the airing of concerns, all concerns, and that there will be no retaliation against people who speak up and speak out. Leadership must also recognize that their inaction in moments of open-secret harassment and unprofessional conduct makes them accomplice to the persistence of the problem.

Paying attention to reports of misconduct and imposing serious consequences for those who act in a harassing way, no matter their status or position, is the surest way to reforming the culture. These new enduring habits are the first and most critical steps needed by organizations committed to creating and sustaining civil and inclusive workplace cultures.

Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of ELI Inc., an Atlanta-based training company that helps organizations address bad behavior in the workplace. He is also a former trial attorney for the EEOC.