Why more bosses aren’t talking about sexual harassment

The floor is yours.
The floor is yours.
Image: Reuters/Axel Schmidt
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Maybe—probably—your office was abuzz this past week with discussions of #MeToo. After the explosive hashtag campaign detonated last weekend, the still-raw revelations of sexual harassment experienced by women everywhere came charging with us into work on Monday, sparking discussion and debate among co-workers.

Maybe—probably—the debriefing took place around literal and proverbial water coolers, in Slack channels and side conversations where colleagues felt bold enough to ask one another what they thought and how they felt. But maybe—probably—there was someone important in your workplace missing from all the dialogue.

Business leaders have become a much braver bunch over the last few years, weighing in on a range of social-justice issues they almost certainly would not have seen fit to involve themselves in, not in a public way anyway, a decade ago. Just since 2015, American corporate executives have openly campaigned against measures that would discriminate against gay people; they’ve signed amicus briefs in court cases involving transgender bathroom bills; they’ve decried gun violence; they’ve denounced Donald Trump; they’ve supported #BlackLivesMatter; they’ve sent memos condemning white nationalism.

And yet, as the world absorbed the sickening details of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s behavior toward women, and as the scandal unleashed decades of untold stories and pent-up anger from women across seemingly every sector of the global economy, companies and business leaders suddenly seemed to have very little to say.

If the leaders at your company weren’t speaking out about the topic, he (or maybe she, but more likely he) may have had reason for staying out of the fray. Among the possibilities to consider:

They didn’t know what to say

Good managers know that employees often look to them for assurance when tensions are high and people are hurting. But even the best managers can find it hard to know what to say when those moments strike.

Unfortunately, leaders have become quite experienced at sending out memos in the wake of mass shootings, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. They’re less practiced on a topic like sexual harassment, which has never been dealt with in the workplace on a scale commensurate with a viral phenomenon like #MeToo.

They feared saying the wrong thing

While literally millions of people around the world authored or engaged with #MeToo posts on social media this week, countless others held back, either feeling they had nothing to contribute or perhaps worrying they might somehow cause offense. Many men were particularly nervous about weighing in, for fear of hijacking the conversation away from women or saying something that could be construed as insensitive.

Consider in that context your company’s senior leaders, most of whom are probably male and probably came of age in a different work environment than many of the people they manage. Oh, and they also are probably used to letting the people in HR or legal do most of the talking on the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace because of all the liabilities involved. Now they need to quickly craft a statement that will be well-received by everyone, across gender and generational divides. And it has to be perfect: this is not an issue you can afford to screw up on.

Saying nothing may look like a far less risky option.

They didn’t have a leg to stand on

Unless your boss is in the Klan, it’s probably pretty easy for him or her to denounce white nationalism, as many executives did in the wake of the August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But does your boss, or your company, have the same credibility when it comes to sexual-harassment issues?

According to a 2016 report of a US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force on workplace harassment, surveys consistently show that at least one in four American working women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.  When polled about their exposure to “gender harassment,” defined by the task force as “hostile behaviors that are devoid of sexual interest” (like sexist jokes, sexually crude name-calling, or openly displayed pornography), the percentage more than doubles (pdf, p. 9).

Senior managers will have a hard time assuring employees that there’s zero tolerance for sexual harassment if they or their team, or the board or HR, have ever turned a blind eye to it—or, worse, if they’ve ever engaged in it. Now, it’s true that executives have been known to say things that don’t align with their actions. But in the current environment, where women are perhaps starting to feel more emboldened about reporting allegations and naming names, it doesn’t seem like a particularly wise moment for managers with skeletons in their closets to draw extra attention to themselves on this issue.

They just haven’t addressed it *yet*

On Thursday of this week, I started asking friends and acquaintances if their bosses had addressed #MeToo and its implications—or, if they were bosses themselves, whether they had addressed the issue with their teams. I wasn’t looking for data; my sample size would be way too small for that. I just wanted to air out my thesis a bit, and see what it kicked up.

One friend, a tech company leader, said he’d been “blown away by the #MeToo threads” but hadn’t thought to use them as the starting point for a discussion at his firm—until now.

For some employees, waiting for days on end for a response to something as big as #MeToo might seem intolerable. But it makes sense to give leaders some leeway to process their thoughts and plan out how to communicate them. This is a response that, if they’re going to give, they need to get right.

They’re just not up for it

Of course, the decision to stay nothing isn’t exactly indefensible. Most companies don’t want to be in the business of crisis management, particularly when the crisis isn’t of their own making, and especially when it doesn’t pose a direct threat to the bottom line. And anyway, why open management up to criticism for its handling of topics as sensitive as sexual harassment and the stories of #MeToo?

On the other hand, what kind of credibility will today’s activist companies have when they speak out against any number of social injustices around the world that align with their missions, if they won’t speak out against an injustice that’s largely occurring in the workplace itself?