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Principal, Candido Consulting Group, Toronto

In Gandalf Group's recent C-Suite Survey, 94 per cent of respondents said that sexual harassment was not an issue in their workplace.

Notably, 95 per cent of these C-Suite executives in the survey were male. Even in the age of the #MeToo movement – particularly in small organizations that aren't in the spotlight – CEOs often don't want to hear about a sexual harassment issue, particularly if it has to do with a top performer behaving badly. All too often, they turn a blind eye to the situation and find any excuse not to deal with it.

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The fact that such an overwhelming percentage of top-ranking executives don't believe it is an issue speaks volumes. Over the course of my career as a human resources professional, I can attest to plenty of situations when a C-Suite executive has refused to believe or act on sexual harassment claims. In one example, I took on a project with a mid-sized firm. When I started the project, the president's executive assistant warned me not to go into a meeting alone with the vice-president of sales. When I asked why this was tolerated, I was told that it was because he was responsible for 50 per cent of the sales revenue. He wasn't going anywhere.

Depending on how senior or how successful the alleged perpetrator is, or how much the company relies on that person, the CEO will either say they don't believe the complaint or aren't prepared to do anything about it. The HR professional then has to go back to the employee and deliver that message.

It's a difficult spot to be in. Employees think the role of HR is to be their advocate and become angry when HR can't resolve issues for them. With so many recent sexual-assault allegations making headlines, many have accused HR of not taking a strong enough position to advocate for the victim. Instead, they are seen as protecting the company and its image – or worse, as having no power to do anything.

In truth, HR's role is to facilitate a work environment in which both the employer and the employee are satisfied and engaged. Much like a mediator, an HR leader does not simply advocate for the employee or the company; he or she is also focused on making informed recommendations for the greater good that benefit both sides. And that role can become extremely challenging whenever those two outcomes are at odds with one another, or when it's the boss himself who is perpetrating the harassment.

Policies only go so far

The Gandalf study also found that leadership is one of the most important factors in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Indeed, while probably every company can point to its long list of policies on appropriate conduct and other issues, the reality is that all the policies in the world will not impact harassment. A piece of paper does not alter behaviour on its own. It is the leadership behind the policies, and the fortitude to enforce them, that moves the needle.

The CEO and HR leader each have important roles to play, especially when it comes to allegations of sexual harassment. They need an open and honest relationship with each other that enables frank discussion. Such relationships don't happen overnight or without effort, and both need to work at building trust. This relationship should be forged early on and should consider all employee-related matters, preferably before having to deal with a sexual harassment (or any other) complaint.

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When these types of issues are raised, a CEO has these responsibilities:

  • Listen to the HR leader. HR knows what is going on in the company. They hear things and understand the employees better than the CEO.
  • Take it seriously. Don’t dismiss the allegations without exploring them. Make it a priority to find the truth.
  • Disallow enabling. To say “he was just joking” is not a valid excuse. There is no justification for this type of behaviour.

For their part, HR must present issues credibly and demonstrate good judgment and critical thinking. What they need to do:

  • Address the CEO in terms they understand. Listen to the CEO and the specific concerns raised. Ignoring or dismissing these concerns will result in losing credibility with him or her.
  • Present the facts. Don’t bring up suppositions or gossip, and make no assumptions. Treat this with the seriousness it deserves.
  • Recommend a plan of action. Anticipate what the CEO’s concerns and objections will be, and address them in your recommendation using a balanced approach.

Both CEOs and HR leaders must avoid drawing any conclusions before getting the full picture. They also need to be aware that their own personal relationships are impacted by how they handle such incidents – both internally with employees and externally with stakeholders.

And don't make the mistake of thinking there will be no consequences. There will be.

Left unaddressed, sexual harassment allegations can affect the business in a number of ways: lost revenue from employee disengagement, lost productivity, damage to the company's reputation, an inability to attract and retain top employees and even lawsuits.

Quite frankly, there can't be anyone who rationally believes that harassment is okay. The perpetrator of such behaviour feels entitled, confident they won't be caught or that nothing will happen to them.

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I once told a president that I had reason to believe one of his executives was harassing one of the managers. He told me he had asked a couple of the other executives, and they told him that this individual was "just kidding" and that the manager needed to "loosen up." After further discussion, however, he begrudgingly acted on the allegation and fired the executive in question. As a result, employee engagement scores went up noticeably – both related to the company and to his leadership.

When HR professionals take a credible, fact-based approach with CEOs, and when CEOs are open to dialogue and action, they can work together to encourage a respectful culture, giving the problem of sexual harassment the gravitas it deserves. It's not an issue that will be changed overnight, or possibly even within our generation. But perhaps the movement we are witnessing across industries everywhere will finally hasten lasting change in order to stop sexual harassment both in, and outside of, the workforce.

Executives, employees, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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