Liz Watson is president and CEO of WATSON, which advises boards and CEOs on governance and effective board practices.
Reports of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace have inundated the headlines recently, but the issue is not remotely new. And it's clear the issue is widespread, with cases being raised across all sectors, from entertainment, media, technology, venture capital, government and beyond. Many of the cases involve high profile individuals or executives – Jian Ghomeshi at the CBC, Marcel Aubut, former president of the Canadian Olympic Committee and more recently Harvey Weinstein and other prominent figures.
The current groundswell has brought the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace into sharp focus. And now that the issue is clearly on the corporate radar, boards should not think that their organization or industry is immune. In fact, there is significant risk if directors do not take steps to understand the issue of sexual harassment, ensure their organization's workplace is safe, and address and enforce high standards of conduct.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that advertising giant Interpublic Group of Cos. told its 20,000 U.S. employees they had until the year end to complete sexual-harassment training. They don't have a harassment scandal. These steps were taken in response to the high-profile allegations sweeping industries in the United States.
In the current context, boards must take steps to assess how well-positioned their organization is with respect to workplace safety, prevention of harassment and other high-risk areas. Boards should not only ensure that a sound policy framework is in place, but that the culture is healthy and there is a way for individuals to raise concerns through a whistle-blower or complaints process. When there are gaps in the framework, or when the organizational culture does not reflect the expected standards, the board should ensure actions are taken to address the deficiencies.
Directors must also ensure they don't, wittingly or unwittingly, jeopardize a safe and respectful environment through their own conduct and actions, or by failing to address inappropriate behaviour they observe from others on the board, within the senior leadership ranks and the organization. In the Weinstein case, and in others, many have commented on a "culture of complicity," not just in the industry but at the board level, where clout and influence with the board gives an individual tremendous power and enables predatory behaviour.
When it comes to sexual misconduct against senior figures, boards need to ensure there are multiple channels through which they can be alerted to the issue, in addition to formal complaints procedures and confidential whistle-blower outlets. Organizational culture audits are becoming more common. Some organizations rely on trustworthy connections at different levels within the organization: Boards do not want to be surprised with bad news, nor do they want learn about the issue through the news or social media.
Boards today are expected to be proactive in understanding their organization's culture and monitoring change when required. Directors have important roles to play in establishing the corporate culture. They must set the tone at the top by demonstrating the organization's values in their own actions. When issues arise, employees will look to their leaders to be clear on organizational values and workplace policies and norms.
Directors need to be prepared to act swiftly if they see or hear of unacceptable behaviour within the leadership ranks. They must be proactive in ensuring their organization has a framework that supports ethical behaviour and a safe workplace. Failure to take such action in light of today's news stories could be considered a failure of leadership.