Boards (and CHROs) Have a Role in Fighting Sexual Harassment and Cultures of Impunity

Boards (and CHROs) Have a Role in Fighting Sexual Harassment and Cultures of Impunity

Workplace sexual harassment may be committed by individuals, but if and when harassers feel able to freely engage in misconduct without fear of being caught or punished, that’s a problem for the whole organization. Specifically, it speaks to a culture challenge; the organization may have policies in place designed to prevent and stamp out sexual harassment, but victims don’t feel secure in reporting because the culture discourages it. Because of that, senior leaders may not find out about a harassment problem as early as they could.

But if culture is part of the problem of sexual harassment, it is also a part of the solution—and a growing concern among directors and shareholders. In a recent blog post at the MIT Sloan Management Review, Patricia H. Lenkov, founder and president of Agility Executive Search LLC, and Denise Kuprionis, founder and president of The Governance Solutions Group, discussed some of the steps boards can take to actively manage culture so as to mitigate the extensive legal, financial, and reputational risks associated with sexual harassment. They offer up some questions directors should be asking in their dialogue with management about the organization’s policies and practices:

How do our current policies measure up to best practices?

Too often, the board does not read company policies or require human resources leadership to review policies and procedures annually to gauge the effectiveness of the reporting process. Directors may think this level of review is “stepping on management’s toes.” However, the board must determine whether the company’s current policies and procedures related to preventing workplace sexual harassment and discrimination are adequate. Asking HR how these policies are communicated and to define “best practices” is not crossing the management/board line. Directors should weigh in on whether the CEO and the management team are communicating the right message.

Do employees trust and use our procedures for reporting harassment?

While there are many methods and procedures organizations use for employees to report harassment or complaints, hotline calls to a company’s dedicated ethics line are a good example. Board directors sometimes utter a sigh of relief when they hear there have not been any hotline calls at their organization, but it’s a common misconception that few calls to the ethics line equates to a “good” company culture. In an open and trusting culture there are many calls — calls for how to handle a matter, calls for clarification, and, yes, some calls that report a potential problem. Informed directors ask how many calls are received in a given time period and require that calls be categorized. …

When does the board get notified?

Keeping with our example of hotline reports, let’s now think about how and when the board should be notified. We’ve found that real-time sharing of reports varies in organizations, but regardless of reporting structure, it’s crucial that the full board be notified at least semiannually (though preferably more frequently) about trends and statistics of employee reports. Directors should also understand the escalation protocols. For example, is there a mechanism to ensure that if a question is raised about the CEO’s behavior, it gets immediately reported to the board chair? Ask if the right manager oversees incoming hotline calls and talk through the reporting procedures.

One challenge for boards is getting visibility into what the organization’s culture looks like on the ground, in the day-to-day work and interpersonal interactions of its employees. To increase their understanding at this level, Lenkov and Kuprionis recommend that board members conduct unstructured office tours and ask to see the results of periodic employee satisfaction or engagement surveys. Fortunately, there is also someone inside the C-suite with the power to help the board obtain an extra level of insight: the head of HR.

Our culture research at CEB, now Gartner, finds that 87 percent of directors report having a good understanding of their organization’s “tone at the top,” but only 35 percent have a good understanding of what the culture looks at the mid-level and just 18 percent at the lower levels of the organization. Employee survey data and metrics like turnover are helpful to the board, but CHROs can better illustrate culture to the board by bringing in authentic employee voices from every level of the organization. Directors don’t need every last detail of what goes on at the ground level every day, but narratives created from employees’ own experiences can provide a richer view of the culture. For example, we’ve seen companies achieve this through technological means, by monitoring employees’ comments on internal and external platforms, or through employees acting as “culture journalists” and documenting the current culture for HR and the board.

CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read more about getting the board involved in culture in the Q1 issue of our CHRO Quarterly magazine.