How HR can change the sexual harassment status quo

21 Feb 2018 By Caryn Vanstone and Darren Maw

As workplace abuse hits the headlines again, Caryn Vanstone and Darren Maw outline what employers can do to stamp out behaviour that is accepted but unacceptable

Since the Weinstein news broke, the floodgates have opened, with examples of sexual abuse, it seems, everywhere. We’ve been rocked in sports and politics, by the Presidents Club ‘men only’ event – and now Oxfam.

In most of these cases, we can detect two recurring themes: power inequality and a lack of rigorous, authentic conversations. Every community develops unwritten social ‘rules’ that become the norm. One aspect of these ‘norms’ is about how power is expressed. Human beings form hierarchies of power, and we understand this dynamic by unconsciously picking up on cues. 

Often, the power differential is too great, and whole groups are dependent on a few powerful figures. The price paid for speaking up about wrongful activity becomes too great for any one individual. Eventually, someone breaks the code of silence. At this point, others rush to condemn something that had, for so long, been a known secret. 

Companies face significant legal implications and reputational damage if this isn’t properly addressed, but handling a Weinstein-type allegation inside your organisation is fraught with difficulty. 

Any investigation needs to be conducted objectively and swiftly. If you privilege the voice of the accuser and it’s proved baseless, the accused could resign and claim unfair dismissal. If you support the person accused and you get it wrong, the accuser could bring a discrimination claim.  

Getting it wrong either way could lead to the employer being sued, and leave their reputation in tatters. Outsourcing the process can offer some protection against that, and is one way of ensuring the investigation is approached independently. Only following the completion of a truly objective investigation can an organisation look to inform internal cultural change initiatives.

Knowing this, what can organisations do to prevent incidents happening in the first place? 

Reward disturbance

First, we can start to reward challenge to authority. Our perceptions of how companies should operate largely remain rooted in the 20th century. Concepts such as ‘aligned’ are used as measures of a good organisation, and HR professionals often ‘smooth’ difficulty away. In reality, friction, struggle and contention are essential. 

Leaders need to be weaned off a diet of ‘simplified’ messages and abstracted information that is devoid of the tension and richness of original experiences. HR needs to increase leaders’ tolerance for gritty conversations by questioning more and speaking truth to power. Most leaders, however, find ‘challenge to power’ uncomfortable to engage with. HR should implement a better support system, which helps leaders recognise that learning is not synonymous with weak leadership. 

Democratise power

Companies should also look to minimise power differences to avoid extreme imbalance. Hierarchies will always exist, but an overly rigid authority culture strips people of choice. Having to run every decision past a leader, having no budget autonomy, centralising authorisation – all disempower and allow dysfunctional norms to develop, leaving the group open to more serious abuse.  

We could democratise evaluation more, in a similar way to apps like Airbnb: you rate the place you rented, and the owner rates you as a customer. In most boss-employee relationships, only the boss has the right to evaluate your performance. What if it ran both ways? This is not the same as gathering 360-degree feedback, which is often a highly flawed affair – t is about finding new ways to genuinely create equal levels of judgement and consequences.

Build what you want more of

When faced with unacceptable social patterns, our instinct is to ‘make monsters’ out of those responsible. But focusing only on the ‘bad apples’ can actually prevent institutional change – because it excuses us from looking properly at the ‘barrel’ the apples are in. 

Research shows that if we are to truly change at an institutional level, it is faster and deeper when we ‘grow’ more of what we want, rather than only eliminate what we don’t want. HR needs to find and spread great practice as well as deal rigorously with problem individuals.

Caryn Vanstone is a director at Lacerta Consulting and Darren Maw is managing director at Vista

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