Sexual harassment and workplace culture: Does your workplace allow this behavior?

There has been a lot of conversation recently about sexual harassment and workplace culture. Why does sexual harassment exist in a workplace? What is missing in the culture that allows such behavior to thrive?

To understand this, look deep inside the culture of your organization. Look at its core. There you will find the purpose, philosophy, and priorities that are the guideposts for your organization and for everyone who works there.

sexual harassment and workplace culture - look at core culture

Look at your organization’s purpose

The purpose of your organization is typically not the root of sexual harassment behavior. Although this would be rare, a company could exist for the purpose of nurturing inequality or maintaining power or preserving a male dominant society. In an organization with such a purpose, sexual harassment behavior might be a natural reflection of that purpose.

Typically, companies are rooted in a purpose that is a contribution to society. Less frequently are companies created to nurture deviant behavior.

Look at your organization’s values

So, if you find that your organization’s purpose is not a source for sexual harassment, then you must investigate your organization’s values. What are the principles and values that are core to how the organization does its work.

There are a variety of values that are core to a company’s culture. There are distinctive values, strategic values, and universal values.

Distinctive values—which I call the organization’s philosophy—are the core values that have been central to the culture since its founding. They characterize the character of the organization. These values are usually derived from the founder, and if these values changed, the organization might feel like a different company.

So, could the organization’s distinctive values be the basis for allowing sexual harassment behavior? You only have to look to comments made about Uber in early 2017 to see that the culture was a male dominant one that focused on winning. Many described these distinctive values—aggressive, unrestrained, dishonest—a set of values that could support rather than deter sexual harassment. In this organization, the distinctive values served as the source for inappropriate behavior. The values supported it. Bad behavior was actually aligned with it.

Other organizations may similarly have distinctive values that permit bad behavior. Unless these distinctive values change, there should be no surprise that employee behavior could be aligned with those values. Employees are typically hired because of their fit. Changing the distinctive values of an organization are hard to do because they are a reflection of the founder and the values have been central to the organization’s culture over the years. Rarely will behavior change unless new leadership is brought in with values inconsistent with nurturing sexual harassment. This is not an easy fix. It takes time because people of the past were selected because they fit that culture.

But let’s say that the purpose of your organization is a contribution to society and your distinctive values would in no way support sexual harassment. Then continue to look further at the company’s priorities.

Strategic and Universal Priorities

Priorities are the values that are either strategic or universal. Strategic priorities are the values that guide an organization in achieving its goals. They are external, and customer and market focused. Universal priorities are the values that guide an organization in building a more engaged workplace. They are internal and employee focused. It is rarely the strategic priorities that lead a culture to allow sexual harassment. But take the time to look at your organization’s strategy to ensure that your goals and the aligned strategic priorities won’t indirectly support a workplace that nurtures this behavior.

Now reflect on the universal priorities that impact the climate of the organization. Universal priorities include fit, trust, caring, communication, achievement, and ownership. In some organizations, the purpose, the distinctive philosophy, and the strategic priorities would not indicate a culture that supports sexual harassment. But the climate of the organization either lacks trust, is unfair, or is not open. Deficiencies in one or more of the universal priorities can lead to poor behavior and an unsafe workplace.

In an organization with low trust in leaders, there can be feelings that individuals are dishonest, lack integrity, are disrespectful, or are unfair. The leaders may be competent in skills that put them in their position, but they view the world in a way that does not support a healthy workplace. If those internal, universal priorities centralize power and control, and create a culture that allows intimidation and the use of fear, then problems will emerge. If openness is not valued and individuals do not feel like they have a voice, then opportunity to expose poor behavior might be limited. The negative environment can be isolated to particular individuals or departments or it could be a broader dysfunction.

Define and talk about the core culture

Organizations must be self-reflective. They must look at their purpose and their values—both expressed and lived. If culture is not an ongoing part of the conversation, too often behavior strays based on individual personalities or on a larger scale because the culture supports it.

Managing one’s culture and creating a humane workplace that nurtures the best in each of its employees is a goal for all. Understanding the importance of values—defining them, talking about them, and living them—is key to building a workplace where everyone thrives.

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