Harassment, Toxic Workplaces and the Role of Leaders

Discussions regard harassment and toxic work environments have flooded into the media lately, putting into question the advances made by executives and leadership in creating a safe and positive workplaces.

What should financial leaders know about sexual harassment and how do they broach the heated topic with their staff? In the Financial Executive Podcast Dr. Stefanie Johnson speaks with FEI Managing Editor Olivia Berkman.

A transcript of a discussion is below the link to the podcast

Olivia Berkman: Dr. Johnson, thank you so much for joining us today. Can we start off with maybe a little background from you?

Dr. Stefanie Johnson: Sure, so my name's Stefanie Johnson. I'm a professor of Management at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and I study gender bias and interception to bias and leadership. So I've become interested in this issue of sexual harassment because it seems to be a driver that is keeping women out of masculine industries.

Berkman: Great. So with harassment claims getting a great deal more attention in the media these days, would you suggest leaders be proactive and discuss the issue with staff?

Johnson: Yeah, definitely. I feel like one of the biggest problems that we're seeing is that people are clearly not willing to come forward about harassment as it's happening. That might be changing now in these high-profile cases, but if you consider that these cases went on with no one stepping forward there's obviously many, many more cases like this where people don't step forward. The people need to feel safe to be able to share the experiences that they're having at work and I think one way to do that is for leadership to really make a strong commitment that this is not going to be accepted or tolerated in their organization.

Berkman: Right. Tell me more about what really prevents employees from coming forward?

Johnson: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean I feel like there's a lot of guilt and shame around being sexually harassed. Johnson: But, even in the Harvey Weinstein case, there were doubters for sure, right, who questioned the women themselves and placed guilt on their shoulders. I just think of Donna Karen's comments about look at what these women are wearing and they kinda asked for it and I think that's a big fear that women have because everyone is going to work and especially in an industry like Hollywood and they're trying to look attractive and then if someone sexually harasses you there's a feeling of like, like did I ask for this in someway, like I was trying to look attractive.

And, but I think there's some guilt and then just the fear that people are going to question you and the role that you played. Like, were you flirting, was that skirt short, and some of the literature more on sexual assault they call this second victimization because you've been victimized. Someone has assaulted you or harassed you and then now you're re victimized because you have to relive the experience with people who are doubting whether it happened, whether you're being honest, and the role that you played. So I feel like that shame and guilt is a huge reason. Second thing that I've slowly noticed is when cases are really prevalent there's a lot of sexual harassment going on because they work at Fox News or something.

You start to believe that this is the norm. It's expected and it's accepted and so why would you step forward, right? It's happening to so many people and no one else is stepping forward there must be a reason not to step forward. But it just takes a tremendous amount of courage in that case to step forward.

And because, for the most obvious reason is people know that there's a huge risk for your career. So clearly, with the Hollywood cases, I mean I think you, Harvey Weinstein, it sounds like allegedly was pretty over about his power to hurt these women's careers. I think in other cases people also have that fear because do you wanna be the individual that left your organization because you filed a sexual harassment claim? Like, that, I think there's a fear of that could follow you and future people may not want to hire you because they might think you'll file sexual harassment claims again. Sometimes it just doesn't seem worth it. People may love their job and not wanna leave the organization because they were victimized. That, that just doesn't seem fair.

Berkman: Right. What are some of the mechanisms that employees are using to raise their concerns around sexual harassment today and do you think that they're effective?

Johnson: Alright, so I'll tell you the reasons or I'll tell you the message that they're clearly not effective.because as look at the number of women who report being sexually harassed or like even the Me Too movement. It seems like upward of 95% of women have experienced some type of harassment. If you look at EEOC claims for sexual harassment there, there's a lot and their increasing actually, but it nowhere parallels the number of women who've been harassed so it's not, whatever we're doing isn't working, but most organizations will have a formal reporting system. Like you have, you go to you're direct supervisor unless your direct supervisor is your direct supervisor is the person harassing you and then you go to HR. Some organizations will have tip lines or like you can call in or anonymously report harassment. I don't know, I just don't know that people are doing it because it's an awkward conversation to have with your boss or the HR person and it's like what outcome are you hoping for? Is it, to get this individual fired, you know, or get transferred? So whatever we're doing it's just like not working.

Berkman: Right. Now, I wanna shift gears a little bit to the leader's perspective so if you're in HR executive or perhaps you're somebody who the HR executive reports to, I know you talk a lot about unconscious bias and I wanna know, you know kinda what that means and then how it can affect those of us who are in leadership positions?

Johnson: Yeah, so you know I think some of this is the unconscious bias on that leaders aren't seeing what's very obviously in front of them where they're also not doing enough to stop it. I don't wanna keep going back to the Weinstein case, but it sound like many people in Hollywood knew about this so the idea that other leaders at the Weinstein company didn't know is a little tough to swallow because so many people seemed to have known this was going on and so the unconscious bias for them is just that this sort of behavior is OK or you know, accepted in that organization. I think the underlying bias is that really women are seen as less than men.

And as more of a sexual object than a real part of the organization and a true, you know a true contributor. I think if we could change that, that would eliminate the whole problem.

Berkman: And I know we're not necessarily talking about diversity today, but unconscious bias can definitely play a major role in the hiring process. Is that accurate?

Johnson: For sure, yeah.

Berkman: Yeah. So we're, you know, not solely interested in the female perspective from this, but the accounting and finance fields do tend to be male dominated and women can feel marginalized as you just said. So what are the steps, some concrete examples maybe that executives can take in those predominately male environments to promote openness and to create and environment for their employees in which they don't fear retaliation or shame if they do come forward?

Johnson: That, yeah, that is a great question. So, I mean I think some of this is a bigger issue around why these fields are so male dominated and you know, I would really argue that in the accounting and finance fields are missing out on a lot of potential earnings and revenue by not having more women organizations and if they were to hire more women in, particularly in the tops of organizations it might mitigate this problem in the first place because you see the greatest levels of sexual harassment that really occur in the most male dominated industries so that could help.

A second thing is we so most sexual harassment in organizations that have an uncivil culture to begin with so it's not just that men are harassing women, of course women can harass men and men can harass men and women can harass women, but in a sexual nature I think there's also just a general instability that occurs in some cultures and it's actually in those cultures that we tend to see more sexual harassment because they're already a culture where treating people badly, you know, not treating people with basic human respect, is accepted. So then it's how far do you have to go into sexual harassment, but if you can improve organizational cultures and make them less competitive, or some people call it like a toxic masculinity in the culture, that you'd actually get less harassment if you just had overall greater inclusion and a more positive environment and in fact, everyone, men and women, perform better in those types of cultures, where it's just a more positive, inclusive culture. No one likes to get beat up at work all day.

But if everyone beat each other up, you feel like, to be the alpha male, you also need to beat people up, or you can't just be the person who's the punching bag, but we do know that you can do interventions to improve that and change things and make sure that your core values of the company really don't reflect an environment where beating people up is OK because we also see that that is contagious to how employees are treating customers. The sad thing about infidelity is that in someone's uncivil view, you will be uncivil to other people.

Berkman: Right, and if you are in a leadership position and you suspect that your company has one of those toxic cultures, is the right move to bring in an expert? I mean, how do you, how do you even address a, you know a toxic culture?

Johnson: Yeah, so there's definitely, you can hire a consultant firm to come in and do a culture survey, but I feel like, most people know that this is the case. You can look at your own, you know most companies do engagement surveys like that and publish the evidence of it, but I think it definitely makes sense to bring in an expert just to shake things up. It's, you know, if the leader, I think a leader could accomplish this on his or her own and say, you know I'm gonna make a change on my team, we're not gonna tolerate this. I've seen that in some tech companies where they often tend to have that highly male dominated culture and they just say we're not gonna do this anymore, but you know, I do think there's something to be said for the gravitas of bringing in an external group to say, let's, we're really gonna put money and effort into changing this and they may be able to uncover information that the leader couldn't get him or herself. So I think that makes a lot of sense as a suggestion.

Berkman: Right, but it clearly starts with just having an awareness of what your company culture is like for, you know, minority groups or women or whomever it may be, to really have a realistic understanding.

Johnson: Yeah, no, that's a really good point. You know, I hear a lot that managers, and you know top level leadership will often lose touch with how employees are feeling because they're so focused on the bigger issues like strategy and stuff like that, but I think if you, if people are seeing this issue and taking it seriously, right now is a really good time to move forward and take a step on this issue because it is on the forefront of everyone's mind.

It's not like this is gonna come out of left field in any company right now. I feel like everyone's thinking about it and talking about it and just the strong focus on this in the media, I think provides a really easy, open door to talk about it, and ask people, you know is this something that people in our team, in our family, in our organization are experiencing and maybe because it's been so public it might be almost OK for people to, for the people who've experienced it to come forward now and say, yeah, you know this could be a problem here where as, you know six months ago where pre Roger Ailes, maybe people wouldn't have been willing to admit, but because of this feeling that you're gonna be questioned, but now when you see all women are experiencing this. Women might be more willing to step up and say, yep, me too.