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  • Writer's pictureBobbi K Dominick

Leaders Lead the Way in a Respectful Workplace

Fox News


NBC News

What do all of these organizations have in common?  In 2017-18, they are in the news, and not in a favorable way. 

All of these major U.S. employers are in the news because of high profile claims of discrimination and harassment in the workplace.  And what do all of these cases tells us about how we prevent harassment?  It starts at the top! When your leaders jump, does everyone follow? And does your leader have a parachute?

In June 2016, the Chairs of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace asked employers to “reboot” harassment prevention efforts.  The EEOC used a poker term, “double down”[1], calling on employers to get more serious about efforts to prevent harassment.  After spending 18 months listening to business leaders, legal scholars, and social science researchers in the area of harassment, the EEOC said: “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.”   The EEOC also said:  “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.”  Over the course of the decades since organizations first began to address harassment in the workplace, many research projects have been completed.  Some of those focus upon leadership.  One study looked at leadership in the military.[2] What the study found was that “harassment occurred less frequently in groups whose members perceive that the organization’s upper levels (i.e., leaders) will not tolerate such behavior….” When leadership does not tolerate the behavior, it is less likely to occur.  When leadership tolerates or condones disrespectful behavior, it will occur more frequently.  What types of leadership behaviors increase the frequency of harassment in the workplace?  The research is in:

· Tolerance.  When a leader is dismissive of behavior that is troublesome, or casts aspersions on the “accuser,” the message to the organization is clear:  This type of behavior will be tolerated here.  Those who might have a tendency to engage in disrespectful behavior are given implicit permission, from the top, to engage in the behavior.  Those who might be subjected to the behavior understand implicitly that, if they complain, they will not be believed, or, as in the case of Fox News, they will lose their jobs.  When the leader models harassing or disrespectful behaviors that implies tolerance. This is what happened at Fox News, the leader at the very top, the powerful CEO, Roger Ailes, was engaging in these behaviors.  That gave permission to people lower on the org chart, like Bill O‘Reilly, to be accused of the same types of behavior.

· Permissive in addressing problems. When harassment is found, what are the consequences?  When the leader is “easy” on the harasser, the leader gives implicit permission for the behavior to continue.  This is what Berkeley leaders discovered when they did not hold prominent professors responsible for the behavior, because termination “would ruin his career,”[3]  or eliminate a research pioneer[4] and the behavior at Berkeley continued. 

· Lack of zero tolerance policies and procedures supported and widely known. Leaders have to be personally involved in assuring that policies are clear, widely distributed, and endorsed by the leader.

· Training that lacks leadership support and clear directives against harassment. Leaders must be personally supportive of training for all team members, especially supervisors, introducing it and explaining its importance, and supporting accountability and consequences when training is ignored or not attended.

So, when someone asks you why it is so important for leaders to be invested in diversity and harassment prevention at your organization, your answer is: Leaders lead the way! [1] “Double Down” is a poker term meaning to double one’s bet.  The EEOC chairs intended this message: significantly increase, the time, effort, energy and commitment to eliminating or reducing harassment in the workplace.

[2] Fitzgerald, L.; Drasgow, F.; Magley, V.:  Sexual Harassment in the Armed Forces:  A Test of an Integrated Model,  11 Military Psychology 3, pp. 329-343 (1999)



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