Sexual Harassment and the Complicity of Corporate Boards
In the last few months, we’ve become familiar with a new routine: A high-profile man is accused of sexual harassment—or assault, or other offensive behavior—and bombshell headlines follow. In virtually every case, those headlines focus on the male perp, not on the companies or the ecosystems that bred their gross, offensive, and sometimes criminal behavior.
Karen Wickre is Backchannel’s worklife columnist who’s enjoyed a long run in Silicon Valley, including at Google and Twitter. She’s also a media obsessive, internet lover, and art & dog enthusiast.
Bad behavior doesn’t happen in a silo. Companies employed, promoted, and even profited from these men, whose misdeeds often date back years—even decades. Yet the people who ordinarily handle the toughest behavioral and ethical issues—people in HR and legal, the COO or CEO—are missing until there’s a full-blown media-saturated crisis.
That’s because of a structural problem. The higher up the ladder the perp sits, the fewer checks and balances. After all, companies typically let the top guys do what they want. They’re less supervised. (In some cases, the offender is also the CEO; e.g. Mike Cagney at SoFi, John Lasseter at Pixar, Shervin Pishevar at Sherpa Capital.) In a disciplinary scenario, usually we look to HR to step in and fix things—but often they report to…these guys.
So who can create real systemic reform when the sickness is at the top? It all rolls uphill—to boards of directors. Ultimately, they have control over the whole of an organization and its employees. Where are they in all this?
Just as offenders often have a pattern of sexual harassment, their organizations—including the boards—have a pattern of protecting, even coddling their talent and giving them a free pass. Boards, in particular, should care about unmooring bad actors. The reputational hit of a scandal often leads to financial downturns, lawsuits, and penalties. Yet, up to the point when they can no longer defend him, companies harbor a perp for the payoff, whether it’s in ad revenue (Matt Lauer, Bill O’Reilly); media prestige (John Hockenberry, Mark Halperin); or lucrative deals (Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K.). Each one kept his organization happy for a while—at a big cost.
Boards have the power to penalize bad behavior, by endorsing and enforcing better cultural hygiene. Make no mistake—this is year-round work, not something to put in place only during a crisis. These efforts are best developed by employees and experts, through processes and programs that make it easier to file complaints confidentially, to review complaints quickly and decisively, to work up training that helps everyone walk the talk on values and behaviors. But none of that good work can happen without a green light from the board, which is, after all, the only group that sits outside of a toxic company atmosphere.
In addition, employers need to develop systems to ensure better cultural hygiene. Here are a few ways to get going: One, employers should vet marquee names much more thoroughly up front to assess their baggage. They must weigh whether that person, whatever his talents, can be reined in—or is worth the trouble he may cause. As an exec, would you go for that superstar knowing that that might lead to investigations, lawsuits, and difficulties in future recruiting? How much will that wink-and-a-nod hire cost you?
Second, company standards for behavior and ethics need to apply equally to everyone, from bottom to top. Many companies say they have “zero tolerance” for harassment or other behavioral problems, but in practice, that means the rank and file will get fired for bad behavior, but the superstars get a pass. To my knowledge, I’ve never worked around a serial harasser. But I’ve observed other transgressors (on-the-job drinkers, sloths, out-for-themselves power-mongers) parachute in to plummy roles without a scintilla of expectation-setting by C-level types. Rarely, if ever, do senior-staff vet them or train them on the company’s cultural norms and policies.
That’s a problem. Training should be more intensive for upper management and public-facing figures. These are people whose behavior is more visible, and who are considered ambassadors of their brands. The standard canned webinar on spotting harassment isn’t designed for them. (Do you suppose Charlie Rose or Andy Rubin attended a routine anti-harassment training?) HR training teams need to work harder to develop training material about harassment that speaks to everyone within a company.
Though responsibilities vary somewhat for public and private companies, boards are meant to keep the organization away from whatever hurts its bottom line. But day in and day out, that’s not what happens. Often that’s because boards don’t have all the information. I’ve helped prepare quarterly reports for boards, and the tone of reports compiled for the agenda is usually meant to reinforce the idea that everything is cool. A rough patch has a prescribed message: we’ve mitigated the damage; we’re on track to improve/achieve results. Board meeting agendas are tightly designed for busy people. They don’t allow time to veer into unscheduled and complex discussions about employee matters, especially complaints or settlements. Not until they face bad press.
Board committees can delve into specific issues in their more frequent meetings. In fact, these committees conduct regular audits for financial health, diversity, and so on. But much of their work is only summarized to the board at large, without specifics. Handling sensitive rumors or accusations is complicated: Legally, there are limits to what can be revealed to a board without jeopardizing privacy. Even so, when it comes to settlements or serial complaints, board committees must be informed early, and in turn, be prepared to escalate the matter. How about companies establishing a new annual audit for employee safety and ethics? It should become as standard as the audit on financial management.
Further, boards can’t be balanced if they’re stacked with “friends and family” types. The board and CEO, jointly, should develop a strategy for board composition that pays close attention to candidates’ talents and qualifications. Every board member should become familiar with the organizational structure, the key players and their backgrounds, employee policies, and how complaints are handled. They should experience the on-boarding process for new employees and make sure that top hires and performers also receive this or similar training. (There can be variations for level of employee, but the substance of what each person is required to learn should be the same for all.)
Doing all of these things can be a sort of early warning system for trouble. But unless the top executives, and their boards, want to reform, they need a reckoning on their priorities, as businesses, and as humans. Given the damage we’re all seeing, they can’t afford not to.