WARNING: THIS WEBSITE MENTIONS SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IF YOU ARE TRIGGERED BY ANY OF THIS CONTENT AND ARE LOOKING FOR SUPPORT, CLICK HERE

WARNING: THIS WEBSITE MENTIONS SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IF YOU ARE TRIGGERED BY ANY OF THIS CONTENT AND ARE LOOKING FOR SUPPORT, CLICK HERE

Creating a team
of upstanders

Amanda Johnston-Pell, Chief Digital Officer and Vice President Digital Sales APAC, IBM; CEW member

December 2021

In its 110+ year-old history, IBM has constantly been at the forefront of inclusion. From 1899, when we hired our first female employee to today, IBM’s commitment to celebrating the talent of diverse constituents has been at the heart of our business and a key driver of our success.

This became a business imperative for us before any Civil Rights Act or legislation; we established our ‘Equal pay for Equal work’ policy back in 1935. What we’ve learned over this time is that diversity and inclusion efforts can’t sit with the HR department alone. At IBM, we see it as a business responsibility, too.

You can have all the right policies and systems in place, but they won’t take flight unless you focus on changing the experiences of your people for the better. To do this, you need commitment from your leaders to build, roll-out and continually evolve inclusion training for employees across all levels. This needs to be paired with a clear and consistent message – everyone is an ally and needs to actively participate in building a diverse and inclusive workplace.

At IBM, we call on our employees (IBMers) to be upstanders – people who are allies and ready to support each other.

By facilitating an inclusive culture, we place equality in the heart of everything we do. This means we do the work needed to ensure our culture is free of sexual harassment, discrimination and inequality.

Embedding equality at our core

Over the years, we’ve run many different diversity and inclusion programs across our global teams and a significant one is the ‘Be Equal program’, which is undertaken by all IBM managers.

Be Equal training was launched in 2021 as part of a larger program called ‘Emb(race)’. Emb(race) was IBM’s message to all employees to stay inclusive as we rallied around the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While IBM also conducts mandatory training for managers and leaders on addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, the Be Equal training program goes a step above that. It’s not just about not discriminating against others but learning how to embrace and celebrate them.

The half-day training sessions are segmented into three pillars and tap into what we believe to be the elements of a truly diverse and inclusive team. This training includes information on:

  • Identity – the unique experiences people bring to a team and why it’s important to bring that diversity to the table. One person might identify as being a woman, career-centric and an introvert, for example. That means they’ll have different perspectives to someone who identifies as an extroverted, family-orientated father.
  • Belonging – it’s important to feel you belong to a tribe, community or team in order to feel psychologically safe in your workplace. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be best friends with all your colleagues, but that you feel supported by your peers and safe to speak out.
  • Behaviour – managers learn about what they can change in themselves to bring about a positive and sustainable change in their teams. This is essentially giving participants the tools to put their inclusion training into action.

The impacts and follow ups

Importantly, we’re not saying to managers, ‘Do these five things and then you’re inclusive’. This training sparks long-term, ongoing conversations and ensures inclusion is layered into all conversations and decision-making processes at IBM.

How do we know that training like this works? Because it gets discussed every day; it’s organic. People talk about bringing their true self to work. It’s part of our vernacular and it doesn’t feel forced.

Since running this training, and similar training in the past, leaders have started taking more responsibility for instilling diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their own units. That makes all the difference. We haven’t got HR or diversity leaders chasing up managers to meet their DEI objectives, it’s just part and parcel of how things are done.

By implementing programs such as Be Equal and others over the years, reported instances of sexual harassment have reduced significantly. We also lead from the top. All senior executives have inclusion index goals, and they understand that D&I is a business and a human imperative.

Progress on inclusion scores is measured through our annual engagement survey. We ask questions to get an understanding of how employees feel at the workplace and if they would recommend IBM as a great place to work to their family and friends.

If results are poor, we don’t leave it until the next annual survey to check in and see if progress has been made. A deeper analysis is facilitated for that team and gaps are addressed.

Sexual harassment and equality are important topics and tie back into empowering bystanders to become upstanders. We train our people on what sexual harassment looks like, what’s not appropriate, and make it clear that we have zero tolerance for it.

The key take-aways from our experience include: to educate and empower all people across the workplace; continually evolve the training content; measure progress on multiple levels; and constantly work to embed inclusion into your organisation’s DNA.

Thanks to Prachi Rastogi, Diversity and Inclusion Leader APAC at IBM, for her contributions to this article.

CEW has developed a range of resources to help leaders bring about real change in their organisations, and to track and eliminate sexual harassment.

We need to set the tone and lead from the top. With this in mind, here is an example of some things we should never say or accept from others:

  • A bullying and harassment policy should be enough to deal with sexual harassment.
  • We have low report rates of sexual harassment, so it’s not a problem at this organisation.
  • We have a reporting hotline which is well publicised, but we don’t get many calls about sexual harassment, so it’s not an issue here.
  • I have been in this industry for decades and I have never seen it, so it mustn’t be happening.
  • That’s the remit of our HR team. If there was ever a big issue, they would escalate it to us.
  • Our staff engagement scores are terrific and there is no indication of there being a sexual harassment problem here. That means we’re doing enough.


Most cultural issues aren’t hiding in plain sight. Often it’s the things that aren’t being talked about that we need to be concerned about. Research tells us that sexual harassment is common and that it’s significantly under reported. We need to be proactive to prevent sexual harassment, and not wait for a complaint before we act.

We need to ensure our people feel safe to come forward and report instances of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace. The only way they’ll do this is if they can see that leadership takes this issue seriously.

Can I suggest we create a board paper for the next meeting to outline how we plan to do this?

We take the health and wellbeing of our people very seriously. We work hard to improve our safety outcomes and reduce injuries, and overall we do a good job preventing physical harm to our people.

As we have seen in many other organisations, sexual harassment is more prevalent than a lot of people think. This represents a real risk to keeping people safe in the workplace, and to our people’s wellbeing and productivity.

It can also cause significant damage to our reputation, our brand as an employer of choice, lost business, and to our corporate standing.

We need to make it crystal clear to everyone in the organisation that we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Our objective is to prevent it. We need to ensure all our systems, processes and practices enforce this commitment.

We need to treat sexual harassment risks as we would any other physical or psychological risk in the workplace. We already have existing systems and processes in place for identifying and mitigating workplace health and safety risks and hazards, and for defining our desired culture.

We need to embed these into our sexual harassment response frameworks, reporting practices and organisational culture so sexual harassment is eradicated.

We can’t afford to wait on this; we need to act urgently.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other conduct of a sexual nature. It’s not only a human rights issue, which is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act, but also a workplace health and safety (WHS) risk which can cause significant psychological, physical, reputational and financial harm.

Existing systems and processes for managing WHS risks and hazards should be used to eliminate the risks and control the likelihood of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace.

Board members and senior executives have a duty to address this. Everyone deserves to work in a safe, respectful and inclusive environment. Respect is everyone’s business.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other conduct of a sexual nature. It’s not only a human rights issue, which is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act, but also a workplace health and safety (WHS) risk which can cause significant psychological, physical, reputational and financial harm.

Existing systems and processes for managing WHS risks and hazards should be used to eliminate the risks and control the likelihood of sexual harassment occurring in the workplace.

Board members and senior executives have a duty to address this. Everyone deserves to work in a safe, respectful and inclusive environment. Respect is everyone’s business.