HR Pros – Flawed Leaders, Sexual Harassment, and Real Prevention

Note – Sexual harassment is in the news again today but disrespectful behavior toward others includes ethnic background, race or age, etc. The approach noted here can help organizations prevent harassment of any kind. This post discusses sexual harassment in particular. As roughly 80% of EEOC claims are woman filing against men, examples in this post use this gender dynamic. Many other combinations of offender/offendee gender exsist and the legal concepts are the same though they represent a minority of claims.

Strategic Goal of Harassment Prevention

The goal is to ensure that employees of any Gender, Race, Religion, Age, Disability or Ethnic group may work free of abuse, intimidation and predation; to eliminate workplace harassment of any kind through a comprehensive and strategic approach to the problem. Focusing on sexual harassment, the big picture strategy would include.

  • Developing and articulating a pro-social, healthy and respectful culture
  • Raising leaders’ consciousness of power dynamics at the heart of unreported workplace sexual harassment
  • Helping leaders to understand the relationship between culture and the behavior in which negative dynamics take hold
  • Elevating the importance of boundary setting by women and other victims with the support of bystanders in deterring illegal harassment.

Guiding principles

Every employee has the right to a workplace free of abuse and intimidation. Human Resource Professionals have a strong advocacy and operational role in preventing harassment of any kind. Harassing behavior is complex and difficult to reverse. It requires 360-degree cultural effort to most importantly, minimize employee personal harm. It has an added benefit to the company of minimizing litigation against the company and its supervisors.

Public disclosures of high level mens’ alleged and proven harassment of lower level female employees over the last 10 years  have shown us that the the simple, go-to minimum compliance-based sexual harassment prevention programs are clearly not effective.

The problem of disrespectful behavior in the workplace is not just a potential legal issue. It is a behavioral and cultural issue. Yes, we need to understand the legal concepts but if that is where the employer training program stops, it will not prevent offensive behavior or romantic behavior that crosses the line. We must be willing to discuss behavior and other sensitive topics in an interactive way.

 10 Elements of a Successful Sexual Harassment Prevention Campaign

1.  Senior Leadership commitment to respectful (and compliant) behavior

Recent revelations of alleged misconduct by Bill Gates (CNN) reminds us that yet again, we must remind senior leadership members that their behavior must be beyond reproach.

Senior company leaders must not only recognize troublesome behavior but be prepared to investigate their senior leadership peers and when necessary, hold them accountable.


If there is head-in-the-sand behavior at the top, all the quality training in the world, won’t stop senior leader harassment of vulnerable employees. In addition, if you are a senior leader, it is difficult for you to assert a “consenual” relationship from a legal standpoint, because of the power diffierential between you and any employee at a lower level.

2. Stated pro-social, healthy and respectful culture

The organization must make Culture a priority which starts with describing the cultural ideal. Healthy culture must include healthy social relationships, ethics/lawfulness, respect and accountability for untoward behavior.

 3. 360-Degree prevention structure

To be successful, a harassment prevention initiative must be championed at the top; reflected in stated cultural norms; leadership words and action; rank and file words and action; and finally be guided by all HR programs and structures. Does your performance management program discuss positive and negative behavior examples? Conversely you can make a powerful example by the recognition of an employee’s demonstrated adherence to healthy cultural norms.

 4. Healthy Boundary development and social dynamics

Women must feel free to say no to any overture she wishes to decline. Men must be oriented to hear and respect the no. Women must be oencouraged to be clear in their refusal. Men must be oriented to support any women’s refusal and back her up in the moment. In addition, women must be encouraged, along with bystander support, to speak up in the moment when offensive behavior targets them. Getting offensive speech out of the workplace is not a woman’s job. It takes all employees working together to extinguish it.

 5. The Continuum of offensive behavior

Offensive behavior is a continuum with each level requiring a careful, proportional response. There is a difference between an innocent request for a date among similarly situated employees and a male employee at any level who will not take no for an answer. Finally talk is not the same as assault and not all illegal sexual harassment is assault.

 6. The Continuum of consequences

The organization investigates accusations and must have a continuum of swift, clear consequences that match the nature of the offensive behavior. Sometimes the consequence is coaching and better awareness. Sometimes the consequence is termination. You can’t be afraid to terminate an offending employee but you shouldn’t terminate based upon accusations alone.

7. Human Resources’ Role

Human Resources leadership should report to the President/CEO to ensure that the message on this topic goes straight to the top. The senior HR professional should be both empowered to maintain the culture, AND be willing to speak the truth to shine a light on untoward behavior among employees, especially when the offender is a leader.

 8. Key HR Structures

All HR programming and structures should be aligned with the culture and a comprehensive approach articulated in this article. This would include orientation, onboarding, management training, promotion criteria, dispute settlements, performance management and staff development. HR programming must include the fair and thoughtful process for responding to harassment complaints. Victims and offenders take lessons from every response the company makes to accusations of offensive behavior.

 9. Ongoing employee training and orientation – rank and file

New employee orientation starts with describing on the desired culture. Preventing harassment of any kind includes but is not limited to compliance-based training. In addition, comprehensive training must be more than sitting employees in front of a stiff, outdated video. The training must be robust and include real life examples for your employee group. This may make trainees uncomfortable but when sensitively discussed, it helps them to undersand the subtle ways in which lower-level employee boundaries are violated.

 10. Ongoing employee training and orientation – managers

The orientation of managers including senior leaders must include additional matters owing to their role in taking reports from affected employees AND their role in modeling appropriate and respectful behavior. This requires a deeper understanding and commitment to upholding high standards. Positive human behavior standards cannot be sustained if managment is ignorant; complicit or offensive in-and-of-itself.


Special thank you to @joanncorley founder of The Human Sphere, for her contribution to the concepts included here and her professional support on this topic.

(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2018, updated content 2021

Contact the author with questions or comments.
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