The last several weeks have been dominated by stories of executives, entertainment moguls, news hosts, and politicians of all stripes being credibly accused of sexual harassment – and in some cases, assault.
We all agree that this sort of behavior is disgusting and has no place in our workplace, the halls of Congress, or at our State Capitols and City Halls.
But what happens if this is happening inside your company? How can you prepare for, respond to, and recover from the reputational damage that could be done to your organization if one of your executives is credibly accused of harassment or assault?
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba talk about how to prepare for this sort of situation, the messaging that may need to be required, when to involve outside counsel to protect your organization, and the need to ensure you’re doing the right thing for the company and victim(s) along the way.
Bryan Strawser: Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly, Minnesota state senator Dan Schoen, Roger Ailes and Minnesota state representative Tony Cornish. What do these six men have in common?
Jen Otremba: Well, I’ve seen them all in the news recently.
Bryan Strawser: You’ve seen them all in the news recently because they’ve been credibly accused of sexual harassment, and in a couple of these cases, assault.
Jen Otremba: And I think information is still coming out about different cases and different people involved.
Bryan Strawser: Apparently, there’ll be a Senate ethics investigation on Al Franken. There’s going to be a Senate ethics investigation in the Minnesota Senate it appears for Dan Schoen. There’s an outside law firm looking at representative Tony Cornish’s activities, and Harvey Weinstein, of course, has been ousted from his company and is taking up residence in the UK, I believe … hiding.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: His brother has also been fired from the Weinstein company, or whatever the name of their firm is, and then Bill O’Reilly allegedly paid millions of dollars in settlements, and Fox News fired him. And Roger Ailes made a multi-million dollar settlement with Minnesota native, Gretchen Carlson, over sexual harassment that he conducted with her over apparently quite a long period of time.
Jen Otremba: And I eventually guess this isn’t the end.
Bryan Strawser: Probably not, and we’re recording this episode, I think, for context the week of Thanksgiving, although it’s not going to be out for a couple weeks, so these situations have probably evolved significantly by the time you listen to this.
Jen Otremba: And there’s probably more.
Bryan Strawser: And there’s probably more, but we’re not here to talk about the news necessarily, and the facts of these cases. What we want to talk about is this rising risk to organizations that one of their employees or executives, or talent, have been engaged in this kind of behavior and the company becomes aware of it, and will have to deal with it.
Jen Otremba: And I don’t even know that I would call it a rising risk, or it’s just now being so much more highlighted as a risk.
Bryan Strawser: I think the reputational risk is what we’re trying to get at.
Jen Otremba: Yes, yes.
Bryan Strawser: The reputational risk has increased in terms of its likelihood and impact because there is so much attention-
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Being paid to this particular issue. I think often because it simply hasn’t been dealt with at many companies.
Jen Otremba: Yes. I agree.
Bryan Strawser: Right, and so now it’s coming out about many of these individuals, and in almost every case we’ve heard that they’ve been engaged in this behavior for a long period of time, and it’s never been dealt with.
Jen Otremba: With multiple individuals.
Bryan Strawser: With multiple individuals involved. So let’s talk a little bit about … I don’t know if prevention is the right term to use, but there are some basic things that we believe companies should have in place in order to at least start a base of how to prevent and deal with these kind of situations.
Jen Otremba: On a reputational basis.
Bryan Strawser: On a reputational basis. So where do we start? We start with a policy, and, Jen, what should the policy be?
Jen Otremba: The policy should clearly define what is not allowed in your organization, so should include sexual harassment specifically, and it should be very clear as to what is allowed and what is not allowed, what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not appropriate behavior, to try to prevent some of that gray area that we keep hearing about.
Bryan Strawser: We want a policy, an employment policy, put into place that prohibits sexual harassment, at a minimum in accordance with what state and federal law says. We’re not attorneys, so talk to your employment attorney about that-
Jen Otremba: That’s right.
Bryan Strawser: About this. But companies can also prohibit behavior beyond what the state or federal law requires, and often that’s appropriate-
Jen Otremba: Yup.
Bryan Strawser: Given the work place. Once the policy is in place, individuals, the company, should go through training.
Jen Otremba: Yes.
Bryan Strawser: Now there’s no indication from what we’ve been reading in articles published over the last couple days here that training in policies, in workshops, do anything necessarily to stop this from happening, but it feels to us like it has to be a minimum expectation that you’re setting a policy, you’re training people to that policy to appropriate management, peer to peer-
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: And work relationships.
Jen Otremba: You have to start somewhere.
Bryan Strawser: You have to start somewhere.
Jen Otremba: Yup, and I think … I think additionally, you have to have a means of reporting, right? So you have to make it a comfortable position for people to report, and include that in the training.
Bryan Strawser: Agree.
Jen Otremba: So much like many of the other topics we talk about with threats of workplace violence, there has to be a way for people to communicate and report.
Bryan Strawser: And that reporting should go to an independent body within the organization, so a lot of companies will contract this out to an anonymous reporting mechanism where you accompany a consulting firm, a call center, where you can disclose who you are, if you wish, or you can just report anonymously, and then those reports go to a body inside the organization that’s going to deal with this in an appropriate legal and mature manner, not to someone who is going to then go use this to find out who reported on them.
Jen Otremba: Right. And I think herein lies the problem, right, so when it’s been reported and maybe there’s been an investigation, often times we’ve seen in organizations where maybe it’s not dealt with, or not really dealt with appropriately, for whatever reason, and then so you start to lose trust in that reporting process.
Bryan Strawser: Yes. And the organization, not just the reporting process.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: If you’ve been the victim of this, and you reported something and that report went nowhere, I think you’re going to lose trust, and you’re going to tell people about that unhappy experience that you’ve suffered this harassment or assault, and you’ve been unable to get any action taken on the issue.
Jen Otremba: Right. And now reputationally put yourself in the shoes of being maybe a mid-level business, or small business, and somebody has this happen, and it wasn’t managed very well, and this individual then decides to have a voice. And say they start talking, so like you said, they’re going to start talking to people. That reputationally is going to have a huge impact, especially nowadays on your organization.
Bryan Strawser: Well, and the people are going to believe the accuser, because there has been so much coverup and failure to deal with these issues in these situations in the past, and that’s part of why there’s so much traction around this issue today. When we talk about setting expectations in the training, we talk about this reporting mechanism, and then there has to be an investigative process that looks at the best interests of the organization, and gets to the bottom of what has been going on. Is the allegation credible? Did this behavior occur? And then that behavior needs to be dealt with in line with what the policy says.
And I think that most people would believe that there is simply no place for this kind of behavior in the workplace. We were talking about another podcast that was discussing this over the weekend. There is a spectrum here-
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Where-
Jen Otremba: Threshold, I guess.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah, and I don’t know that we know where to draw the line on some of this, but we do know that unwanted sexual advances are not okay in the workplace that-
Jen Otremba: Outside the workplace too.
Bryan Strawser: Or outside the workplace, yeah.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah, just to be clear.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, be on property or off property, doesn’t work here.
Bryan Strawser: No, you’re exactly right.
No, but in the work environment, there is no place for that. It’s a pretty egregious violation. Touching someone is assault, and that’s obviously way beyond the pale of what’s acceptable in or out of the workplace. Here, of course, we’re dealing with not the physical workplace, but we’re talking about people who work at the company.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Because this behavior can happen-
Jen Otremba: Anywhere.
Bryan Strawser: After hours. It can happen before work. It can happen-
Jen Otremba: On a work trip and travel.
Bryan Strawser: It can happen on a date.
Jen Otremba: Exactly. Yup, yes. And I think that’s good to point out because we have a lot of those discussions. We have them a lot, working with workplace violence prevention is … well, that did happen, but it was off property that it happened, so it’s not for us to deal with. Well, reputationally-
Bryan Strawser: It is.
Jen Otremba: It absolutely is.
Bryan Strawser: Right. When I was … I just spent the first 12 years of my career in the actual, like field security part of our previous employer, and I can’t tell you the number of situations I dealt with involving sexual harassment. Of course, HR is in our organization … HR was the leader for those, but because I was the security leader in the area, I was often involved in the investigative process and conducted interviews or serve as a witness, or dealt with more senior people directly when they were alleged to have engaged in this behavior, and a lot of stuff happens on work travel, because you get … you’re away from home, and you feel safe, or the perpetrator feels safe-
Jen Otremba: Sometimes there’s alcohol involved.
Bryan Strawser: There might be alcohol involved. Actually, all of them involved alcohol to some extent. But a lot of things happen inappropriately on a work travel, so it’s definitely a place where clear guidance is needed about appropriate behavior, particularly as a leader, if you’re on those kind of trips. Whatever … not a deliberate trip for this purpose, but you’re on a work trip-
Jen Otremba: Yes.
Bryan Strawser: And you’re kind of leading the team through that.
Jen Otremba: Yes.
Bryan Strawser: We also see, and I’ve personally witnessed situations where there was egregious behavior, but we liked … I say we … people senior to me, who were decision makers, liked the individual that had been alleged to have done these things, and therefore nothing happened to them, or something minor happened to them. In almost every case, just like we see in the [inaudible 00:09:56] world, they recidivated. They did it again. And at some point you have to draw the line. They should have drawn the line on the first offense.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and not only did they do it again, but maybe their peers now-
Bryan Strawser: Think it’s okay?
Jen Otremba: Think it’s okay. They’ve seen this and so now they’re going to do it, or do it later on down the road at some point.
Bryan Strawser: Right. So our advice for companies when it comes to prevention in dealing with the incident is have a policy, train the team to the policy, set clear expectations, live up to those expectations, and hold people accountable when they cross the line. And that accountability may include terminating them, and/or calling in law enforcement or criminal justice officials to deal with criminal behavior. Assault and worse, that goes on.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and if necessary, bring in, like you said, bring in an outside party like law enforcement or maybe it’s somebody else to have … to conduct the investigation, to help to build the trust in that organization, both with the employees or students or whoever is in the organization, as well as the public, and the public’s view of that organization.
Bryan Strawser: When it comes to your senior executives, if one of them is accused of this kind of behavior, it’s not at all unusual to bring in outside counsel to conduct the investigation. You gain that outside impartiality that goes along with this, but you also gain a shield of legal privilege around the investigation, although I’ll tell you if you’re a publicly traded company, you’re in a really bad spot because you probably are going to want to at some point disclose the results of that investigation, even if it’s just a summary, what has gone on.
And you can look at recent situations involving Uber as a good example of this where-
Jen Otremba: That’s right.
Bryan Strawser: You know, Uber clearly had a cultural issue where this kind of harassment was okay, because they didn’t deal with it, and they tilted the table in favor of people that were committing this kind of egregious acts-
Jen Otremba: In the public’s view.
Bryan Strawser: In the public’s view, because they were talented and they wanted to retain them, or because they had never been accused of this before, which of course turned out to be BS.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, never is.
Bryan Strawser: But Uber went to an outside firm, and then shared most of the outside firm’s investigation publicly, which I thought was a good example of transparency. That’s an extreme example of what can happen, but some of the folks that listen to this-
Jen Otremba: It’s an example of what can happen if it’s not dealt with at the lowest level-
Bryan Strawser: Exactly.
Jen Otremba: If it’s never dealt with, that culture continues to grow.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: And so that is ultimately what could happen.
Bryan Strawser: Right. So we talk about this all in the aspect of we see this as an increasing risk for companies because of the prevalence of stories and accusations and issues that are coming up. This is definitely something that we think a company of any size needs to put some thought in to how to respond and what would they do, and what would their messaging look like, and how would they deal with it. But I also think it serves as a warning that these kind of reputational issues, you know, six months ago no one would have thought that this was going to be the big issue that it is today, that’s that it should be the big issue that it is today. But companies didn’t predict this coming at them, and it’s good to start to plan and make sure that you have this risk in mind as you approach the next four or five months.[podcast src=”https://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/11714270/height/360/theme/standard/thumbnail/no/direction/forward/” width=”100%” height=”360″ scrolling=”no” class=”podcast-class” frameborder=”0″ placement=”bottom” use_download_link=”” download_link_text=”” primary_content_url=”http://traffic.libsyn.com/bryghtpath/022-Harassment.mp3″ theme=”standard” custom_color=”” libsyn_item_id=”11714270″ /]