Three ways to improve your corporate culture in the #MeToo era

The #MeToo movement has forced organizations to take a closer look at themselves Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Barri Rafferty
Partner, President and CEO, Ketchum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

In the United States, 81% of women and 43% of men said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault, according to a recent national study. These numbers are higher than past research had suggested, and may in part be due to a broader definition of harassment and assault, as well as the raising of awareness around these issues.

The US is not alone. One in five women in England and Wales have experienced some type of sexual assault, and the use of the #MeToo hashtag in countries including India and China suggests that despite a lack of official data, sexual harassment and assault are truly universal issues.

Since the #MeToo movement has taken hold, women and men are holding people in positions of power to a much higher standard of acceptable behaviour. The movement has forced organizations to take a closer look at themselves, scrutinizing not only their policies, but their actual practices and conduct. Organizations and those who lead them must abandon the all-too-familiar “not in my backyard” rhetoric and replace it with real talk, transparency and action. There should be no gap between what you say your values are and what you let happen in your corridors.

While we’re certain that not every organization has issues of sexual harassment, we suspect it would be hard for any of us to find a colleague who could say they have never felt vulnerable in a moment, whether with a stranger, acquaintance, colleague, client, supervisor or someone else in a position of authority. For that reason, this issue belongs to all of us.

Much attention has been placed on sexual misconduct allegations in the high-profile entertainment, media and political spheres, but accusations have been levied against leaders in nearly every industry. If your organization truly has a culture that doesn’t tolerate the predatory behaviour that has come to light in recent months, that is good news. But it doesn’t mean the topic shouldn’t be openly addressed.

Image: Bloomberg

Whether the #MeToo movement has raised issues in your organization or not, it is surely on the minds of your employees, customers, board members and shareholders. Engaging in an ongoing discussion, reviewing policies and enforcing your code of conduct are now essential. And yet for some organizations, you may acknowledge change is needed.

Based on my firm’s more than 20 years of experience helping organizations address challenges both from inside and out, there are three things I would recommend all leaders do.

1. Celebrate your culture strengths while identifying - and being transparent about - what must be fixed

The culture that makes your company unique and different has elements that leaders should promote at every opportunity. At the same time, leaders should acknowledge when there are issues to address. Leverage your relationships with staff and conduct surveys across your business to understand culture “gaps” better.

You may need new internal research approaches to probe into employee feelings of safety and equity, comfort in reporting harassment, and gender bias inside your company. Once you identify gaps, communicate to employees: “I hear you, and this is what we are doing about it...".

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2. Clarify, in writing, exactly what behaviours will and will not be accepted, and enforce these rules

As leaders, we should take pride in modelling and rewarding the right way to treat people. However, employees often believe some bad behaviours are accepted if talent delivers important business results. Letting this type of perception linger will lead to a loss of good people and brand reputation - the opposite of being “good for business”. Acceptable behaviours need to be agreed upon by the entire leadership team and then consistently communicated and applied.

3. Refocus your reputation-building strategy from the 'inside out'

Today, more than any other time in business history, the connection between what your employees think and what your customers think has never been stronger. The brand values that motivate your customers to choose you instead of a competitor need to originate within your company. As a leader, it is critical to understand the levers you can influence to lead your employees to become more trusting and empowered ambassadors for your brand. If they uphold and tout your values, your culture will remain consistent.

We have reached a tipping point for gender equality. #MeToo is not going away. Do we let those who have been publicly outed for their behaviour face the music alone, or do we come together as leaders to make sure we are all pushing for change?

I believe we have an obligation to ask hard questions, accept hard truths and lead real change within our own walls. Only then can leaders feel secure that their vision for a fair, safe, inclusive workplace with a healthy culture is truly embraced, and not just a top-down mandate where exceptions are made.

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