Can Business Leaders Do More to Combat Harassment and Bullying?

December 21, 2017 LRN Corporation

Written by: Susan Divers, Ellie Doohan, Michael Eichenwald

From news anchors to movie producers to representatives in Congress across the country, the list of high-profile allegations of harassment and bullying continues to grow. But outside the sectors of entertainment and politics, there has been somewhat less noise about the issue. Is that because there’s less of it happening in the corporate sector, or because people can’t or won’t speak up?

It seems more likely to be the latter. It’s probably safe to say that each of us knows at least one person who has moved jobs simply because they were bullied or harassed – sexual or otherwise. Yet, by and large, there is silence.

Amid the headlines and shocks we need to ask ourselves the question: Are companies doing enough to prevent harassment in the workplace, and to address it if it does arise? Business leaders can benefit from asking themselves the same question and taking a hard look at whether their company’s culture tolerates harassment and bullying by executives, high performers or anyone else in the company (and many already are, to their credit).

When it comes to preventing harassment and bullying, and building a respectful workplace, there are four areas where leaders can focus their efforts to get the best results.

First, leaders must know how to listen up. By that, we mean responding thoroughly to allegations of complaints and actively reviewing people and business areas where there might be cause for concern. If it’s done right, people gain confidence to share complaints and speak out about misconduct and bad behavior that they experience.

Preventing harassment is not just about encouraging people to speak out when they see something bad happen. It’s also about leaders knowing how to listen to those complaints and allegations. The goal is to create the expectation that words will be heard, even when they’re uncomfortable and wrongs will be made right.

Second, companies should take a zero-tolerance stance when it comes to bullying. When leaders permit bullying of any kind, in effect they tell their employees that they shouldn’t expect fair treatment from the organization. As many have pointed out over the last few weeks, the worst harassers have often been bullies, too. The two go hand in hand and—at heart—are an abuse of power.

Third, it’s important to hold everyone to the same standard of behavior. Whenever harassment or bullying comes to light, leaders in the organization should take swift and consistent action, irrespective of the offender’s level of seniority or job performance. Sometimes, that means the Board getting involved. The main point: No one should be able to act differently because of their position in an organization.

Fourth, leaders need to inspire open and honest dialogue. If they really want to create workplaces where everyone is safe and respected, they should ground their organization on sustainable values like fairness and respect. That means creating broad opportunities for dialogue around what these ideas mean, where people see them, where they don’t and how we as a company are doing in bringing them to life in our own culture and work.

This implies that part of the job of being an executive means encouraging and participating in difficult conversations with employees and other leaders. That’s true. Leadership isn’t always easy. And part of the job description today is to create meaningful ways for employees to connect to each other, to listen to each other, to grow to trust each other and know how to communicate with one another.

Making progress on these four elements of a company’s operating culture is not easy. It’s much harder than introducing a new training program, slapping someone on the wrist for misconduct or even firing a serial offender. But all leaders will benefit from a healthier business culture – and better business results overall – if they work consciously to address this issue. Now is the moment for all of us to up our game.

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