Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Corporate cultural change: Tone and conduct at the top

This is the first in a series of five posts suggesting best practices for implementing corporate cultural change.  For an overview of all the tips on this subject, check out this preview post.  Today’s post will discuss tone and conduct at the top.  Next Monday’s post, on March 5, will be about enforcement.  The third post in the series, on March 12, will discuss effective policies.  The fourth post, on March 19, will focus on procedures to complement those policies.  Finally, on March 27, the fifth and final post will provide insights about innovative approaches to take employee and organizational education beyond the basics of routine training.

Building on the momentum created in 2017 by the brave and bold disclosures of the Silence Breakers, the #MeToo movement, and the #TimesUp initiative, in 2018 it is more timely and important than ever to throw major weight behind the need for disclosure, self-analysis, and change within organizations in all industries.  The focus on individuals – both in protecting those who have spoken up, enabling others to speak out, and keeping people safe in the future, and in properly punishing those who abused and harmed others as well as deterring further misconduct – must continue.


Round-up on compliance issues with #MeToo in academia

An extended cultural reckoning spurred by public disclosures and investigative reports about sexual harassment and abuse has been ongoing since mid-2017.  The #MeToo sharing inspired by many high-profile Silence Breakers joining investigations by journalists or courageously sharing their personal stories has led to an ongoing public discussion about power, consent, disclosure, reporting, and enforcement.  Societal expectations and stakes for organizational justice and reform are deservedly higher than ever before.

While time will tell the ultimate shape of concrete, forward-looking change within institutions and communities, the one truth that is already apparent is that no industry will be exempt from having its organizations and their employees at all levels engaged in the change to social and corporate norms that must take place.  The current public discourse was kicked off by stories told by people who were abused, preyed upon, and suppressed by individuals and organizations in the Hollywood entertainment industry, but survivors from every sector have joined to share their experiences to expose their harassers and abusers and seek justice.


Compliance must-haves for changing organizational culture

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.


Institutional responsibility and the US Olympic Committee

The end of 2017 has been an explosive and revelatory time for public disclosures about culturally-pervasive sexual harassment and abuse. In most cases the reporting has focused on exposing various individuals, who committed their offenses with the full force of their power and prominence within their communities, organizations, and industries. All too often, the courageous narratives presented by the individuals who come forward to tell their stories include the fact that their harasser or abuser systematically prevented them from work advancement or access to work at all, in many cases withholding employment opportunities and in some cases, even coordinating with other men in positions of authority to prevent the women from working in the future.

The many (and continuing) disclosures about the inappropriate and dangerous behavior of these high-profile men has been a cultural watershed moment. Hopefully this heightened awareness will lead to a transformation in the public discourse about societal expectations around these dynamics, as well as justice for the women who have had their lives negatively impacted and their careers curbed or ended. However, many questions remain in what structural progress, if any, will come from the individual cases, no matter how numerous they become.

Thus far, far-reaching institutional responses to the misconduct of these individuals has been lacking or entirely absent. The best most organizations have been able to muster is routine HR statements that the accused men are being suspended or will resign, sometimes accompanied by saccharine denials of knowledge and expressions of regret, and seldom followed up with any significant sort of commitment to organizational change or an authentic intention toward setting a standard for corporate social justice.

Corporate boards and senior management at organizations under fire for the unacceptable behaviors of their principals and often most visible representatives have proven lacking in the unfolding of this cultural moment, which is driven by individuals and targeted at individuals. While certainly these are cases where bad people did bad things, it is important to acknowledge that they were empowered to do so, implicitly or in some cases expressly but with a blind eye toward their malfeasance, by the organizational structures which promoted and supported them and oppressed and marginalized their victims.

For more on the complicity of corporate leadership and the dubiousness of their malleability to change even amid the major societal focus on these issues, check out these great pieces from Wired:  Corporate boards are complicit in sexual harassment and Making the silence breakers Time’s Person of the Year won’t change anything.

One particularly beleaguered institution that is confronting the limitations of its definition of its own institutional responsibility is the US Olympic Committee. Ethical and integrity questions about the actions of individuals associated with the US Olympic Committee are nothing new. Incidences of cheating, doping, and abusive behaviors by coaching and medical staff are, unfortunately, nothing new. Because the US Olympic Committee relies on a vast network of local personnel who train, recruit, develop, and support athletes often from a very young age. Under these conditions, athletes, their schools, and their families place tremendous trust in the representatives and related parties to the US Olympic Committee that they rely upon to bring their Olympic ambitions to fruition.

All too often, predatory coaches are reported by a victim only to have multiple other athletes come forward to say that they too were mistreated and abused. Organizations within the US Olympic Committee’s umbrella ban individuals proactively upon revelations of sexual abuse, and make efforts to distribute guidelines and ensure education, but underreporting of instances of sexual assault mean that predator coaches prey on athletes for entirely too long undetected.

The reality is, the US Olympic Committee has 48 national governing bodies underneath it which thousands of club teams and gyms underneath that. The sheer volume of organizational and administrative entities through which these abuses pass and would need to be addressed or investigated, all without a national entity or a mandatory supervisor to set a compulsory standard for this, is one of the greatest forces working against effective identification and removal of predatory coaches. In this context, major organizations such as the US Olympic Commission too often focus on removing individuals without identifying root causes or building defense structures against the underlying problems.

Changes are too often driven by media exposure and fear of reputational damage, and too infrequently motivated by compassion or justice. Until these institutions adapt their approaches to address sexual abuse as directly as they can their commercial concerns, and until adequate oversight and control measures are taken with meaningful enforcement actions to back them up, individuals will continue to be harmed.

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 more about the US Olympic Committee’s challenges in defining and enforcing a meaningful code against sexual abuse and misconduct in its ranks, check out this article from Harper’s Magazine:  Pushing the Limit.


Silicon Valley and undoing the normalization of sexism as corporate culture

Much of the attention on Silicon Valley in recent months has been not for new technological innovations or advances in the markets. Unfortunately, the public discussion surrounding the high-tech and start-up world, and the individuals and companies that finance that industry, has been focused on worst practices for corporate cultures. As society at large grapples with gender equity, racial and ethnic representation, generational workstyles, politics in the workplace, and many other diversity challenges, the most frequent conclusion seems to be that the state of things in 2017 is not as progressive or integrated as may have been assumed.

Many high-profile Silicon Valley organizations have coped with this revelation of corporate intolerance very publicly. Among them is Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, a high-profile venture capital firm. Managing partner John Doerr was an investor in some of the highest profile first generation technology companies to come to market: Intuit, Netscape, Amazon, Google. When he hired Ellen Pao in 2005 as his chief of staff, it seemed like he was assertively signalling that Kleiner Perkins wanted to take the lead on elevating qualified women to visible leadership roles in Silicon Valley, where men have overrepresented women in management, and within the even more traditionally male-focused venture capital domain.

Pao’s experiences throughout her tenure at Kleiner Perkins, capped off with her 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit and her firing before that lawsuit came to trial, indicate a different environment. Rather than being valued for her contributions and promoted on her merits, Pao alleges that she was harassed after a workplace romance went bad and that she was often marginalized in her role, expected to take on essentially personal assistant type duties while investing or higher level tasks went to male colleagues. Instead of contributing to a gender-integrated workplace where individuals were elevated for their accomplishments, insights, and commitment to their jobs, Pao paints the picture of a dysfunctional and increasingly hostile environment.

Kleiner Perkins did not have policies or training against sexual harassment at the time Pao worked there. A control framework to identify, prevent, and address these corporate culture issues is imperative. Any company that does not set a tone on these matters and take the time to thoughtfully and proactively set expectations for an integrated, balanced organizational culture demonstrates no credible commitment to workplace equality and the merits of the diversity of viewpoints this brings with it.

Many cultural changes have been underway for so long that they are taken for granted or even pushed against by now as creating an undue burden in the other direction. The truth, however, is that these movements toward a more balanced, integrated workplace are still stymied by a lack of genuine commitment. Ideally the office would looks much more the best version of the world, where people are elevated for their merits and not their demographic traits, and are not kept from even getting on the road to success because of someone else’s decisions about their right to work because of a trait like gender. In order for this to really develop, though, leaders in business (both established ones like Kleiner Perkins and start-ups who are defining their corporate values for the first time) need to take ethical stock of where they stand and if they can commit to creating a culture where all people are accepted and utilized for their merits, then they need to do so visibly and meaningfully. The time of tokenism or promises without true intention needs to be past so that people of all kinds can get into legitimate leadership positions and then pay it forward to the next generation behind them.

Pao did not prevail in her lawsuit, but perhaps it will endure anyway as a test case. While it did not result in a guilty verdict, cases like this one can be a cultural watershed for policy and enforcement standards in companies to mitigate legal risk. Perhaps also other women working in, or fired from, Silicon Valley under similar circumstances can see where Pao succeeded and failed in her legal strategy and take up the cause on their own behalves. Bringing these issues into the public light can certainly drive change in creating a cultural imperative for women in tech to speak up and out.

For more insight on Pao’s experiences in Silicon Valley and happened with her lawsuit against her former employer, see this excerpt from her book on The Cut, originally from New York Magazine.