CEW member and non-executive director
Investors and proxies are questioning boards much more directly on sexual harassment, asking “How are you thinking about ‘me too’? What are you doing differently since reporting around Brittany Higgins’ experiences?”
Directors need to validate what is being done in their organisation. Vague statements – ”We are confident we are doing the right things” – won’t cut it. And sexual harassment is going to stay on the investor agenda moving forward.
One organisation I am involved with did a full validation process around all issues relating to human rights. We interrogated our policies, codes, practices and reporting just as you would validate a prospectus. This included sexual harassment.
The validation process resulted in the creation of a great big map of interconnecting commitments, practices and resources.
Break down each statement around preventing and dealing with sexual harassment, and take a step back to judge if you are actually doing what you say you are doing. Think about whether it would stand up in the court of law and the court of public opinion.
You might find gaps in areas where there has been a lack of definition, inadequate training or access to training, or poor recruitment practices. You need to recruit for culture, give your people the tools they need and take care of them across their different work environments.
Imagine your organisational stance is ‘Our company has zero risk appetite for sexual harassment of any sort’. If this is the case, you need to proactively address how you ensure the company meets its risk appetite – how risk is mitigated and managed.
The validation process takes time – we had to fix the train while we ran the train. We had a dashboard of current state, gap to desired state and progress to close the gap. It made a huge difference.
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:
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.