The ongoing public disclosures about sexual harassment and abuse that have filled the news since mid-2017 have led to a major cultural reckoning. Courageous people have come forward to share stories about inappropriate and dangerous behavior of high-profile individuals. The public discourse about these people who were violated by abusers and predators with the complicity or support of other individuals or organizations has, to this point, focused largely on bringing these offenses to light, in order to listen to and believe in victims, so that they may be supported and empowered as survivors and as bearers of new societal norms.Brave and chilling individual narratives about how harassers and abusers systemically oppressed people within their industries by preventing them from work advancement or access and took advantage of their authority to continue to perpetrate their offenses and crimes will continue to come to the surface. While public conversation can never undo the harms that were caused, and no apology or conversation can ever fill the vacuum of character or moral motivation in which no one stepped forward to take action at the time the abuses occurred, sunlight is a tried and true disinfectant. The shadows must not be allowed to re-descend in the wake of these individuals who have spoken up in great acts of personal sacrifice and desire for progress.
The time is already ripe for broad and bold organizational action. Conversations must take place throughout all levels of organizations and communities about power, coercion, consent, and the individual and systemic forces that allowed these injurious and injust behaviors and relationships to take place. Individuals must be held accountable for abusing and harming other individuals, but even more so, change must be demanded in organizations and systems which did not rise to the ethical challenge of preventing, identifying, and addressing these actions, sometimes over the course of many years.
Aly Raisman, who was among more than 140 women sexually abused by the U.S. Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, stated this sentiment with great impact in her victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing, saying: “How are we to believe in change when these organizations aren’t even willing to acknowledge the problem?” Raisman went on to repeatedly state not only that talk is cheap, but also that for organizations to just make statements and issue empty promises while avoiding real action is like a new violation to each abused person all over again.
These words from Aly Raisman are not only incredibly brave and powerful. They are a decisive call to action for change to the organizational cultures that ignored, enabled, and protected abusers and harassers. Raisman insisted on real commitment at the organizational level to take concrete responsibility, embrace radical transparency, and be serious about reform: “If we are to believe in change, we must first understand the problem and everything that contributed to it. Now is not the time for false reassurances. We need an independent investigation of exactly what happened, what went wrong and how it can be avoided for the future. Only then can we know what changes are needed. Only then can we believe such changes are real.”
Raisman is devastatingly correct that this cultural watershed moment requires a response at the organizational level to match the intensity of the individual speak-ups that have brought society here. Organizations – corporations, programs, governments, communities – cannot be permitted to neutralize this heightened awareness with inaction. Societal expectations about authority and power relationships must transform. This can only be accomplished through pervasive structural change.
So far, genuinely responsible and progressive institutional responses to individuals coming forward to tell their stories and name their abusers has been at best insincere or inadequate, and in most cases entirely absent. Routine statements of apology, claims of ignorance, and token HR actions targeted toward suspending accused individuals or letting them resign will not inspire organizational change or a real obligation to raising the bar for justice and responsibility within these cultures.
Corporate compliance programs must lead the way in fixing the broken or insufficient organizational structures which promoted or supported individuals who mistreated and harmed others that were in turn oppressed and marginalized. While it is necessary for everyone to continue to listen to and respect survivors who come forward and to exact the forces of justice upon the people whose behavior hurt them, organizations must begin to take the lead in driving these disclosures and targeting the forces of change at themselves.
The most effective way from a compliance perspective to actively address misconduct and impact corporate culture is to consider and commit to the following objectives:
- Tone and conduct at the top: Corporate compliance culture must walk the walk. The fish rots from the head, and containment of toxic and dangerous culture must happen from there as well. Buy-in from the executive board or whoever sets the tone at the top of the organization must recognize that management and leadership are not mutually exclusive. Tone at the top – messaging and saying the right thing at the right time to model conduct and culture expectations – is important but it must have teeth. Resource investment, reflection in public and internal values, and transparency at all costs are the least senior management must commit to do in order to grow and change beyond a culture that protects abusers with silence or support.
- Consistent and visible enforcement: Organizations must demonstrate accountability. Fear of negative attention leads to empty promises and false assurances. Reporting and investigations must be followed by notices of violations and enforcement actions. Change needs to feed-forward, not just offer an apology for the past. Whenever possible, results of investigations should be shared to promote transparency, express follow-through, and ensure that offenders consider and are curbed by the promise of real and public consequences. Organizations must apply both carrots and sticks – recognition of positive progress as well as disclosures of violative behavior that will not be tolerated.
- Concrete and values-based policies: Organizational policies need to state clear rules and principles that evoke values, honor a culture that protects the vulnerable and abhors wrongdoers, and addresses real risks. Organizations must be sincere in their self-assessments of their own shortcomings and inadequate controls in order to craft policies that may effectively address the real problems rather than just giving easy lip service and sweeping the real insufficiencies aside. Directives in policies must be linked to defined, principles-based expectations of the cultural practices to promote and prevent.
- Concise and accessible procedures: Credibility and convenience of procedures is imperative to make them useful. Any procedure to prevent abuse or protect individuals must be believable and understandable. It must not be so burdensome that it cannot be followed, so academic that it cannot be understood, or so hidden that the reasonable employee could not find or retrieve it. Organizations need to consider the audience when planning delivery of the procedures and make them as simple and executable as possible for them to be constructive.
- Awareness and dialog, not training: Holding a mandatory corporate training session or making all employees watch a webinar or read a pamphlet is the worst kind of tick the box compliance and is an insult to survivors and individuals who wish to work in organizations that value true progress. Effective communication is the emphasis rather than compulsory and rote studying of generic principles. Organizations should aim for ongoing discussion rather than directives and decrees, conversations but not campaigns. Awareness efforts should be pitched to be compelling and provocative, tailored to individuals as much as possible. Any communications should also include operational aspects, to promote the credibility of policies and procedures in place, as well as knowledge sharing.
Compassion, justice, and positive change that will protect people and prevent or punish bad conduct should be the focus of organizational adaptions to address sexual harassment and abuse. Adequate oversight and control frameworks, both responsive to the needs to protect individuals rather than avoid reputational risk, must be implemented along with meaningful enforcement actions and real dialogs to restore trust and credibility.
Organizations must change from operating independently on these issues, which provides them with the plausible deniability of jurisdictional ignorance and a patchwork of ineffective rules and procedures for processing sexual assault claims and investigations. Instead, senior leadership must stand up and make these processes uniform and coherent so that they can be not just a pretense, but also effective in protecting individuals and taking responsibility. Only then can the brave testimonies of individuals lead to organizational change toward practices that will respect and protect them.
For a further perspective on institutional responsibility and challenges to transparency, and necessity for change, focused on the US Olympic Committee, check out this post.
Read Aly Raisman’s full testimony here, or watch the video of her brave appearance in court here: