Tone at the Top is Vital for Preventing Sexual Harassment!

Tone at the Top is Vital for Preventing Sexual Harassment!

(Note on December 5, 2017 – given all of recent harassment accusations against business and political figures, it seems useful to re-publish this post.)

Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick lost his job following an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment at the company.

Roger Ailes of Fox News met a similar fate after an internal investigation following high-profile sexual harassment suits filed by female news anchors.

What must CEOs do now to avoid being the subject of tomorrow’s lurid headline?

Below are some helpful excerpts from the EEOC’s 2016 Study of Harassment in the Workplace (emphases added):

“Over and over again, during the course of our study, we heard that workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment.

Two things became clear to us (the EEOC). First, across the board, we heard that leadership and commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace in which harassment is simply not acceptable is paramount. And we heard that this leadership must come from the very top of the organization.

Second, we heard that a commitment (even from the top) for a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace is not enough. Rather, at all levels, across all positions, an organization must have systems in place that hold employees accountable for this expectation. These accountability systems must ensure that those who engage in harassment are held responsible in a meaningful, appropriate, and proportional manner, and that those whose job it is to prevent or respond to harassment, directly or indirectly, are rewarded for doing that job well, or penalized for failing to do so.

These two sides of the coin – leadership and accountability – create an organization’s culture.

An organization’s culture is set by the values of an organization. To achieve a workplace without harassment, the values of the organization must put a premium on diversity and inclusion, must include a belief that all employees in a workplace deserve to be respected.

In short, an organization’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace must not be based on a compliance mindset, and instead must be part of an overall diversity and inclusion strategy.

Organizational culture manifests itself in the specific behaviors that are expected and formally and informally rewarded in the workplace. Organizational climate is an important driver of harassment because it is the norms of the workplace; it basically guides employees . . . to know what to do when no one is watching.

Organizational cultures that tolerate harassment have more of it, and workplaces that are not tolerant of harassment have less of it.

If leadership values a workplace free of harassment, then it will ensure that harassing behavior against employees is prohibited as a matter of policy; that swift, effective, and proportionate responses are taken when harassment occurs; and that everyone in the workplace feels safe in reporting harassing behavior. Conversely, leaders who do not model respectful behavior, who are tolerant of demeaning conduct or remarks by others, or who fail to support anti-harassment policies with necessary resources, may foster a culture conducive to harassment.


What steps can an organization’s leadership take to ensure that its organizational culture reflects the leadership’s values of not tolerating harassment and promoting civility and respect?

First, leadership must establish a sense of urgency about preventing harassment.

One way to effectuate and convey a sense of urgency and commitment is to assess whether the workplace has one or more of the risk factors we describe above and take proactive steps to address those.

Another way to communicate a sense of urgency is to conduct a climate survey of employees to determine whether employees feel that harassment exists in the workplace and is tolerated.

Second, an organization must have effective policies and procedures and must conduct effective trainings on those policies and procedures. Anti-harassment policies must be communicated and adhered to, and reporting systems must be implemented consistently, safely, and in a timely fashion. Trainings must ensure that employees are aware of, and understand, the employer’s policy and reporting systems. Such systems must be periodically tested to ensure that they are effective.


Because organizational culture is manifested by what behaviors are formally and informally rewarded, it all comes down to accountability – and accountability must be demonstrated. An employer that has an effective anti-harassment program, including an effective and safe reporting system, a thorough workplace investigation system, and proportionate corrective actions, communicates to employees by those measures that the employer takes harassment seriously. This in turn means that more employees will be likely to complain if they experience harassment or report harassment they observe, such that the employer may deal with such incidents more effectively. This creates a positive cycle that can ultimately reduce the amount of harassment that occurs in a workplace.”

I have experience helping businesses upgrade their employment policies to match today’s high risk envoronment. Give me a call!  I’d love to help you.

Michael Oswald

Mobile – 208.914.3086

Please note: the above post contains educational information. It is not intended as legal advice. Engage an attorney who is licensed in your state to get advice on dealing with any specific legal issue.

© 2017 Michael S. Oswald


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