It’s a strange situation. In many American workplaces, it’s the sexual predators we protect, not their victims, according to journalist and author Gretchen Carlson. Since her landmark 2016 lawsuit against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, its $20 million settlement, and the resulting network shakeout, Carlson has been speaking and writing about the ways this upside-down situation can be corrected. Fortunately, as Carlson explains in her Big Think+ video “Stopping Sexual Harassment: Strategies for Leaders,” there are things that can be done.
How a company culture is broken, and fixed
Research has consistently shown that retaining female employees strengthens a company’s bottom line. So even if one sets aside the issue of fairness, a business has good reason to address the systemic protection of predators that forces many women to quit their jobs. Tragically, Carlson’s research shows that some 99% of those women never work in their chosen field again. We don’t know if this is thousands or even millions of women, but it’s clearly a significant amount of talent that’s going to waste.
After all, they often have little choice. In many workplaces, a harassment victim — or a bystander who witnesses it — risks being punished simply for speaking up. “They’re promptly demoted, blacklisted, or fired,” in Carlson’s words. It’s a toxic, no-win situation that encourages silence and enables predators.
Ultimately, the responsibility for a solution belongs to a company’s top leaders, says Carlson. Part of this, of course, is the example a leader sets. If he’s predatory, such behavior can come to be seen as normal. As a result, “What we have working right now across America,” says Carlson, “are a lot of enablers and bystanders.”
In 2019, 95% of top executives are men, and part of the solution is hiring more women. It’s been shown that companies with more women at the vice-presidential level experience less sexual harassment. Whoever that are, the person or people at the top must establish a culture in which victims and witnesses are encouraged to come forward, and feel safe in doing so.
Specific steps to take
Carlson presents a handful of measures that promote a culture of safety.
Talk about harassment in meetings
Top executives can hold meetings, either in small groups or company-wide, in which it’s made clear that harassment is simply not acceptable. A statement from the top such as this makes appropriate behavior an official company expectation.
Celebrate people who have the courage to come forward
While it’s obviously important for victims to speak up, it’s also critical that witnesses feel safe and appreciated when they feel a need to report abuse.
Provide a safe way to speak up
It’s often the case that anyone wishing to report an incident is directed to HR. This is less than ideal, according to Carlson, since HR’s primary job after all is protecting the company, rather than individuals. It’s not uncommon for HR to look for a quick fix by getting rid of the complainant, or by moving the accused somewhere else in the company, which only allows the abuse to continue there.
Carlson suggests hiring an ombudsman or even an independent contractor to whom employees can report problems instead. At the very least, a company can provide a few different places to submit a report to offer witnesses some options.
In-person employee training
It’s become common to require employees to participate in video compliance training sessions. “We just go ‘click,’ ‘click’ ‘click’, ‘click,’” says Carlson, “so no-one’s learning anything.” She’s even heard that some have their assistants do the clicking for them.
Better, asserts Carlson, are in-person sessions that not only teach employees to recognize harassment, but also imbue them with the courage to stop being forced into the position of being a silent bystander, or worse, an enabler.