Every day seems to bring more allegations of sexual harassment or improper sexual behavior in some form. First, Harvey Weinstein was accused and convicted in the court of public opinion; and so many others including Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken have fallen. The President stands accused by multiple women, and the Senatorial candidate Roy Moore recently lost his election in Alabama due to accusations by multiple women of his improper sexual behavior.
I have been CEO of several companies, and accusations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct are not uncommon in organizations today. So, how do you determine what is real and what is false?
Every company I have led or even worked for as an executive had clear company policies against harassment and improper sexual conduct. We had training and sensitivity sessions with all employees required to attend. We could not afford the litigation and the diminished productivity associated with hostile workplaces. I am guessing politicians and entertainment executives may not have such required training. The lack of required sensitivity training and clear policies usually reflects a lax attitude and contributes to a potentially hostile environment.
Leadership comes from the top. Unless the CEO, organizational leader, or managing supervisor embraces clear policies and enforcement of rules against sexual misconduct, poor behavior will often occur. Unless the leader’s personal conduct is above reproach, others will also feel free to engage in unacceptable behavior.
Powerful men have opportunities to transgress, whether they are CEOs, high ranking politicians, or people in the news. Women in powerful positions may have the same opportunities, but I don’t know because I have never been in that role. Often, young women are attracted to power, but a true leader resists opportunities to exploit such situations.
The claims of sexual misconduct can generally be divided into three categories.
First, some claims are easily confirmed, the perpetrator can be quickly terminated, and the organization moves forward.
Once I had a secretary claim her boss hired her only because he wanted to have sex with her, which he did on multiple occasions. I fired the guy as soon as I determined he was having an affair with someone who reported to him. The fact his secretary had none of the usual administrative skills reinforced the premise that her utility was not related to her time at work. That was an easy decision. Unfortunately, the terminated employee had been an otherwise exceptional manager and high-level producer, but I could not let him continue. Morals and ethical behavior are more important to any organization over time than short-term profits or success.
Secondly, allegations are sometimes completely false.
An employee, for example, receives a bad review and responds with an accusation that the poor review was due to her unwillingness to perform sexual favors. It is always easier to blame others for one’s own shortcomings. Some employees want attention, and some may not like a fellow employee and seek to taint that employee’s record. The accusing employee may even believe his or her accusation even if it is untrue. Employees who make false acquisitions are usually not that good about performing other tasks and have a record of poor performance. There is also usually no supportive evidence or other witnesses in such situations. I try to dismiss false accusers as quickly as possible but am sensitive to making sure the dismissal is not and cannot be characterized as retribution for allegations they made concerning sexual misconduct. Documenting and communicating poor performance is the antidote to false accusations.
Thirdly, and most of the time in my experience, claims of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, or hostile work environment are more complicated and not quickly resolved.
Often, individual perceptions differ. In one case, a woman accused a male colleague of sexual harassment and produced a serious of supportive emails. But when we confronted the accused male employee, he produced a series of highly suggestive emails from the accuser. They were both responsible for the problem, and we counseled both and warned them to desist from any further suggestive comments or emails. It is always important to gather both sides of the story, before making a decision.
The most complicated accusation I ever needed to resolve was an accusation that a male supervisor was showing favoritism to a female subordinate because he was sleeping with her. The accuser provided specific accusations regarding time and place of romantic liaisons. Our investigation ultimately showed the accuser was lying about the specifics and was jealous of the coworker, but the supervisor was indeed having an affair with someone else and using company funds to continue the relationship. So, the accusation of an affair with a subordinate and favoritism was correct but for the wrong reasons. Other company members participated in a cover-up to protect one or the other involved in the dispute. It took a while to straighten the situation out and resolve the differences.
My conclusion of having worked through many accusations (note I have never been personally accused of any related issue), is that it is important to take time and investigate the accusation. When multiple accusers come forward, there is a likelihood of at least some truth.
Flat denials by the accused and the refusal to answer questions are typically the conduct of someone who has things to hide rather than someone who welcomes an investigation to clear his or her name. People who are innocent of accusations seem to welcome an investigation and are cooperative because they have nothing to hide.
Scott MacDonald has been CEO, President, or Managing Director of several companies. His book, Saving Investa; How an ex-factory worker helped save one of Australia’s iconic companies, has won numerous awards.