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Sexual harassment and assault

Sexual harassment at work: it comes down to the corporate culture

Christopher Stephens calls on companies to adopt a clear code of conduct to make their workplaces physically and emotionally safe, and establish a company culture based on respect

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 5:59pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 7:18pm

The seemingly endless allegations of sexual misconduct in recent weeks make it clear that too many businesses have systemic deficiencies that perpetuate a toxic work environment. The question now is, how can companies create and maintain a safe and dignified workplace for women?

A sexually hostile workplace has four components. The first is a morally deficient person who acts out their inclination to debase others. The second is a disparity in power between the abuser and the victim. The third is a workplace environment that gives the impression that any complaints will be ignored or met with shame or reprisal. The fourth component is complicity by senior management – real or perceived.

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The occasional bad actors are a certainty in business and elsewhere. But companies with good management practices can prevent the hiring and promoting of such people, or deal with them when they do appear. A good governance system can mitigate the risks and impact of these people’s actions, build staff confidence and morale, and save corporate reputations.

All companies must take reasonable steps to implement a few simple safeguards.

The first is to adopt a clear code of conduct that requires all workers to treat their colleagues and others with respect, and which includes sanctions for mistreatment. Senior managers should also be required to enforce standards and be disciplined for their failure to act on allegations of disrespect, bullying or harassment.

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The second step is to put in place a whistle-blower protection policy that shields the identity of accusers and protects them from reprisal.

The third is a process that enables a thorough investigation of allegations by professionals who are sufficiently independent from the accused and their work unit.

The fourth is a training regimen that instils awareness and coaching on acceptable behaviour for new and existing staff.

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These rules and processes are necessary, but still not sufficient to change a toxic workplace.

There is no substitute for establishing a corporate culture defined by a set of shared values and attitudes. The list must include certain “core” values that are non-negotiable, rather than merely aspirational. Among these are dignity and mutual respect between all employees, and the commitment of management to ensure a physically and emotionally safe workplace.

As the father of three girls soon to enter the workforce, I find recent news stories terrifying. But these events also present an opportunity to highlight these important issues and address them.

Christopher Stephens is general counsel at the Asian Development Bank