Hitting Powerful Sexual Predators Where it Hurts

Like many of you, I am alternating between shock, anger, sadness and disgust as the wave of allegations against powerful and prominent men continues, seemingly  without end.  While there are differences in the allegations against these men, describing behavior ranging from creepy to criminal, they all have one thing in common – men in a position of power and influence pushing themselves on women and girls under their influence.  They all seem to express an attitude that may have been most crudely and openly expressed by President Trump, but common to all of them – that their power and influence allows them to behave pretty much however they want towards women.

It is trite and stupid to say not all men in power behave this way, because apparently a significant number of them do.  As men we’re sometimes oblivious to it.  I remember being involved in a sexual harassment investigation during my first tour in the Foreign Service nearly three decades ago, after a young woman visiting our Embassy on TDY told me she had been grabbed and kissed against her will by a high-ranking Embassy official.  She filed an official complaint when she returned to Washington, and I was interviewed by the investigators.  As the investigation dragged on and people began to talk about it, I was shocked to discover this same official was a serial offender known pejoratively to the female staff as “Lips”.  I had known he was a kind of sleazy guy who considered himself a “ladies man”, and regularly cheated on his wife with other women in the local community, but I had never known he also regularly harassed subordinates.  Perhaps I should have connected the dots.

These men survive because people don’t know, or perhaps don’t want to know, and those who do know are either afraid to talk or look the other way.  That has to stop.  The measures taken so far are obviously inadequate to deter such behavior.  Studies have shown that the much-lauded sexual harassment training provided by many employers (including the State Department, where I worked) are actually more effective at shielding the employer from lawsuits than protecting women from harassment.  That may indeed be their primary intent.  Similarly, the prime allegiance of most HR departments to which harassment must be reported is to the organization, not to the victim.

What is going on now, with many women coming forward with allegations against powerful or prominent men is very useful in drawing attention to the issue, and may prove to be a deterrent to such men in the future.  I do worry about two things, however.  First, that so many allegations are coming out at the same time, that they begin to lose their shock value, or even that this behavior begins to be seen as normal rather than aberrant.  If everyone is doing it, then no one is really at fault.  Second, that they will quickly fade from the media’s and the public’s attention before anything concrete is done, as previous such waves of allegations have.  These specific allegations may indeed damage the careers of those who are accused, and they have certainly damaged their reputations, but I’m not certain that will be enough to be a strong deterrent.  think how many years most of these men flourished in their careers before their downfall.

I think all organizations that want to change their culture (and if they don’t want to perhaps they should be forced to) need to look more deeply at their HR practices.  Specifically at how supervisors and people in positions of power and influence over others are hired, promoted, evaluated and compensated.

One thing all people of power and influence have in common is that they are ambitious.  Ambitious for fame, for money, for power.  To change their behavior, we need to make it clear that sexual harassment will have a strong chance of thwarting their ambition.  Not just on the off-chance someone is brave enough to report it and it gets public attention, but as part of regular HR procedures.

It can be done.  I’ve seen it.

When I entered the Foreign Service (an organization more full of ambitious people than most), there was a strong tradition of supervisors who were abusive to subordinates.  The kiss up/kick down style of management was, frankly, one of the dominant ones.  Many supervisors were well-known for being abusive to staff and still were promoted regularly and reached some of the highest positions in the State Department.  Then it became a common (but not uniform) HR practice to institute 360 degree reviews as a part of the recruitment process for assignments.  Good assignments are one of the keys to advancement in the Foreign Service.  Traditionally, managers only needed to be concerned about impressing their bosses, and now suddenly the opinions of peers and subordinates were also given weight.

It was a massive game changer, and relatively quickly the number of openly abusive managers in the Foreign service dropped.  Abusive, toxic personalities did not disappear completely, of course, but they went from being common in upper ranks to rather uncommon (except for political appointees of course, but that’s a different problem).  Why?  Because, suddenly there were routine consequences for bad behavior.

The 360 degree reviews are a very flawed tool, of course.  They don’t give due process.  They give disgruntled employees a way to strike back at bosses who disciplined them, perhaps for good reason.  Many hires were still made based on good old boy (with a few good old girls mixed in) networks that discounted 360 feedback as sour grapes.  Frankly, not all bureaus and offices even cared about employee morale.  The employees chosen for these reviews are also not randomly selected but rather are chosen by the applicant, so usually gave positive feedback.  And yet still some of them provided useful negative feedback.  How bad do you have to be as a supervisor (or how completely clueless) if you can’t find two or three subordinates who will speak kindly of you?

Because of all its flaws, I am not recommending 360 degree reviews as the cure to sexual harassment by powerful men.  But I think its dramatic effect on the State Department’s institutional culture shows us institutional change is possible if potential harassers know there is a strong chance their behavior will hurt them, and not just their victims.

To this end, I think it needs to become standard HR practice to regularly poll workplaces about sexual harassment in their workplace.  I don’t think we can afford to have HR Departments just wait for people to come forward with allegations, because we all know the reasons (fear of retaliation, shame, wanting to be a team player, etc) why women do not come forward.  I think the results of such regular information gathering needs to be a part of significant decisions such as promotions, new supervisor hires, contract renewals and political candidate vetting.  Men in power need to know that their female subordinates are going to be asked about their behavior toward women as a part of the regular course of business, rather than just in the course of a formal investigation kicked off by a complaint which may never come.

Yes, there are dangers in this approach, but I think they are manageable.  The dangers of doing nothing are far higher.

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