The facts are staggering.
Thirty-three million women in the U.S. have been sexually harassed in work-related situations, according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll.
The hashtag #MeToo had been shared more in one day than any other feminist hashtags in an entire year … with over a million shares on Twitter in a 48-hour period and 12 million in a 24-hour period on Facebook.
Over 70% of sexual harassment claims go unreported, mainly due to shame and fear of retaliation.
As a woman, the mother of a daughter and the CHRO of Accenture, a global company with 425,000 people including over 160,000 women, I am horrified by the sexual harassment epidemic that plagues workplaces across America. The daily headlines reporting a new predator, along with the millions of courageous #MeToo revelations – not just from celebrities but from sisters, colleagues and friends – suggest how monumental and deeply embedded this problem is across society where no occupation or industry is exempt.
The question has been asked by the media, “where is HR?” I take this challenge personally and implore not just HR leaders, but all leaders, to do the same. This is an opportunity for us all to hold the mirror up to ourselves as leaders – and our organizations – to identify where we can do better. We should look for gaps that exist between what we say and what we do – to create a culture of respect, zero-tolerance, free of retaliation and where non-negotiable behavior and advocacy is everyone’s job, particularly those in positions of power.
Questions Leaders Must Ask
There is an extraordinary amount of work that needs to be done to eliminate the climate of sexual predation in the workplace. It starts with leaders asking themselves these important questions, to move beyond a compliance mindset and minimal defense plan to one that prompts real change.
1. Does our culture support (or contradict) our policy?
An excellent HBR study asks why sexual harassment is such a persistent and devastating problem in the American workplace, especially when 98% of U.S. organizations have sexual harassment policies in place. The answer: culture. Policies, processes and programs are essential; however, if the culture doesn’t align, policy is worthless.
To create a culture where harassment is abhorred, the tone must be set at the top. Leaders across an organization must not only exemplify the desired values, but hold themselves and others accountable to a high standard.
2. Are we encouraging transparency?
Being courageous enough to have this conversation in the workplace is critical. Every individual needs to be able to talk about what they feel, what they need, what they experience and what they observe. Transparency builds trust – and trust is an essential ingredient to overcome a predatory culture. As leaders, we need to open the space for this dialogue to happen. And, to make sure there are channels for employees to get information and the support they need confidentially through third-party resources.
At Accenture each of our 425,000 people has a career counselor – the majority of which are not their direct supervisor – to encourage a more open and trusting environment to share both aspirations and concerns. We encourage frequent touchpoints according to a rhythm that is set by the employee. Ultimately this helps to build stronger relationships and opportunities for people to open up. It’s also critical to have a hotline where people can raise concerns anonymously if they do not feel comfortable sharing with anyone else.
3. Have we created individual and shared accountability?
The bottom line is that sexual harassment and assault are criminal offenses. No one should be exempt from being held to an organization’s commitment to protecting the rights of its employees. Performance should not be brought into the discussion. It’s irrelevant – high performers can be fired for this.
In a zero-tolerance environment, we also need to demonstrate that we are there for each other. Across all levels of the organization, people must be encouraged to stand up if they observe any behavior that is demeaning or threatening to a colleague. As leaders, we need to be the example – helping our people see themselves as part of the solution and believing “it’s my job” to create a respectful work environment.
We also must ensure that every issue raised is investigated by trained people. If you don’t have the expertise in your organization, then it’s important to get outside help. We owe it to our people to get this right.
4. Are we giving women an equal voice?
I firmly believe that organizations cannot solve this problem without also looking at gender equality. If we want women to speak up in the workplace we need to ensure they have an equal voice. Aggressively working to shift the balance to 50% men and 50% women will create a different dynamic that further strengthens a non-complicit and zero-tolerance culture. Equality in principle must be matched by equality in practice. This should be on every leader’s agenda.
How Conduct Counts at Accenture
At Accenture we recognize that we must make ethical behavior a natural part of what we do each day – with each other, our clients, and our communities where we work and live. To help achieve this, we created our Code of Business Ethics and Conduct Counts at Accenture, which underpins what we believe, how we live, how we lead – and are embedded into everything we do.
I’m honored to have Chad Jerdee, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at Accenture, share the pen with me today. Chad is a wonderful colleague, trusted advisor and true champion for our people. Chad is instrumental in architecting and helping to infuse our Code and Conduct Counts throughout our organization, so I’ll pass the pen to him to share lessons learned.
Thanks, Ellyn, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss such an important topic.
I am the father of two girls, a proud beneficiary of women in leadership (I’ve worked for women over half of my career at Accenture) and a leader of a team that is over 60% women. It is difficult to fully express how shocked and dismayed I am by what I’m reading in the news. One thing that strikes me in particular is the lasting damage these behaviors have on victims, many of whom explain how they live with the consequences throughout their lives. It has certainly led me to pause and reflect on the importance of my shared accountability as a leader for driving Accenture’s culture, as well as what we in the collective business community must do to address this outrageous and illegal behavior.
When I reflect on culture, I start with bedrock principles. It strikes me that many of these incidents arise out of a culture where human beings are thought of as assets to be exploited – environments where individual power, influence and business outcomes are given paramount importance. In this kind of culture, employees who experience harassment are, not surprisingly, afraid to speak out. Even when they do, they get swept up in a legalistic process biased toward protecting the company and protecting those who deliver financial results. Through this process, victims are often “re-victimized” even if the process ends in discipline for the wrongdoer or, as is often the case, a confidential settlement. The cultural root causes are left unaddressed, and as we’ve also seen, the pattern of harassment inevitably repeats itself. These companies are, of course, quickly discovering that this is not sustainable for their business in the long run.
Accenture is a talent led business. We start with the bedrock principle that every human being is equally deserving of respect, dignity and the opportunity to succeed. These aren’t just words to us – they guide how we work together. One of the things I’ve always appreciated in my 20 years here is that when we are at our best, we value people based on their ideas and contributions, not their position in the hierarchy. This is, first and foremost, a moral imperative, but it is also the only way to deliver results for both our people and our clients. In a digital company, hierarchy means even less, and we cannot be successful if we don’t capture the talents and ideas of the people immersed in the new waves of digital tech.
Building on bedrock principles, companies must do more than just adopt policies and punish wrongdoers. They must engage actively with leadership and employees to meaningfully drive the culture. Several years ago we launched Conduct Counts. We set clear expectations about the behaviors we expect from everyone, and regularly survey our employees to hold ourselves accountable. If, for example, we have employees in a country that reports bullying or a fear of retaliation, we work with leaders in that country to engage with our employees, and take open, transparent action to improve the culture in that country. Our leaders take it seriously, and we assess their performance based on the results. The principles of Conduct Counts are woven into employees’ normal conversations and it’s become an integral part of how we work together every day.
Still, no organization is immune from bad behavior. When issues are reported, we must take a human approach in how we address them. What do I mean by this? It means listening to the potential victim with empathy and not putting up a defensive, legalistic shield that sends a message that the company’s interest comes first. It means supporting the victim throughout the process and taking action to address unacceptable behaviors even when that may create other risks or it might threaten short-term business results. It means providing sympathy, support, and counseling to employees who experience bullying or harassment. And it means having the courage to admit we can do better – finding appropriate ways to be transparent with our people, treating these matters with utmost importance, and ultimately committing to action.
Back to Ellyn
Thank you, Chad – not only for sharing your insights today, but for leading by example. As leaders, we have an obligation to ensure each person – she, he or they – feels safe, valued and able to show up every day as their authentic self. When this happens, we unlock people’s full potential. By serving our people, we ultimately serve the business.
And, all of us in HR must step up in a big way. It takes courage. But where is our value, after all, if we are not taking care of people and ensuring culture isn’t just about what we say, it’s about what we do?
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.