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Sad truth on how companies respond to workplace sexual harassment

The Toronto Star by Kelly Nolan 07 November 2017

As leader after leader falls from grace in the current sweep of sexual harassment and assault accusations, CEOs, chairs of the boards, human resources executives and corporate legal counsel are rushing into emergency meetings to assess their risk and build crisis communications strategies to “manage” the potential fallout.

What’s on the meeting agenda? Reviews of past nondisclosure agreements (NDAs), risk assessments on unresolved complaints from employees and disgruntled employees who have fled the company.

“What is our exposure on this?”

“How do we manage what we have hidden in our corporate closet?”

What should be on the agenda? How to create equity frameworks to ensure our employees are safe and free from harassment and the abuse of power. How to ensure transparency so the women on their team and their future recruits know their well-being trumps the “Trumps” in the office.

NDAs are the devil’s work. They silence victims, protect the employer from taking responsibility and secure a perfect environment for predators — and have done so for years. (Fox News … say no more.)

“What was ‘acceptable’ 15, 10 years ago is clearly not acceptable now,” Britain’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC as he resigned amid accusations of sexual assault.

#Breakingnews, Michael, it was never acceptable, you were just protected by colleagues who can no longer justify looking the other way in the current environment. The risk assessment matrix is no longer in your favour.

#Metoo campaigns don’t tell the full story of the impact of sexual harassment or assault. They don’t explain how a raised male voice or display of male aggression can trigger a reaction that has me crying and shaking in the fetal position because of past abuse I have endured.

The phenomenon is too widespread to call these isolated incidents. Employers need to take a stand instead of hoping to avoid the news cycle. In Canada, 53 per cent of adult women have experienced “unwanted sexual pressure” and more than 1-in-10 Canadians — both men and women — say sexual harassment of women in their workplace is “really quite common,” according to a survey released Wednesday.

Imagine how a women would feel if her employer promised her that in cases of sexual assault and harassment, she will never be silenced with an NDA? How is that for commitment?

Or how a student would feel at a university if offered true support instead of the institution focusing on preserving its reputation when it comes to reporting abuse on campuses?

It’s possible to create barriers to abuse. Limiting the power of executives over their teams and organizations is a safety necessity. Fiefdoms spawn monsters like Ghomeshi, Weinstein and others, and they can be changed easily if those in power want it bad enough.

Ensuring all harassment and assault accusations are handled by an independent third party is an interesting approach. Putting appropriate safety frameworks in place for high risk activities, such as attending conferences, off-site meetings or work events is another easy step for employers.

Issuing blind surveys to employees about their security at work and insisting on performing exit interviews to determine why an employee is leaving are other best practices.

The financial and time investment spent to protect these men far outweigh the investment in preventing sexual harassment; HR departments are failing at protecting employees.

Firing the outed men and issuing mea culpas is a lame attempt at demonstrating a commitment to women in the workplace. It took brave women to out these men. Come on, Alpha males, you can be brave too — the cool kids don’t hang out in the “locker rooms” anymore.

What will it take for leaders to take a bold stance against predators in power? Instead of supporting lawyers who work to silence victims, and spin doctors who seek to overcome the crisis by diverting the focus, try evolving your workplace culture from a patriarchal system of entitlement to one where women never have to be afraid.

Kelly Nolan is co-founder of the Talent Strategy Institute, an organization that assists with diversity and inclusion assessments, engagement and recruitment strategies, training, workshops and coaching. Kelly is an expert in diversity and inclusion strategies for the science, engineering, IT and high performance computing sectors.