Sexual harassment: Organizations must stop protecting ‘brilliant jerks’

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Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the world’s largest HR professional society. As a global leader on human capital, culture and leadership, Mr. Taylor is a sought-after voice by C-suite executives as well as state and federal elected policymakers on all matters affecting work, workers and the workplace. He is frequently invited to testify before Congress on critical workforce issues-from sexual harassment to paid leave-and authors a weekly column, “Ask HR,” in USA Today, the country’s largest newspaper.

JOHNNY C. TAYLOR, JR.: Too many organizations have tolerated the brilliant jerk. Too many organizations have tolerated the highly profitable sexual harasser or bully. And what you then do is message to everyone, despite what we say, this is a competitive environment, and he who brings the most money or he who is at the highest level in the organization dictates the rules. And so they vary. There’s two sets of rules. There are rules for the powerful and for the not-so-powerful. That is a really complicated issue. And I think it’s why we struggle with it.

I’m going to give you an example of something that I just recently experienced. I was interviewed recently with a younger woman, millennial-happens to have been-and she talked about having began her career on Capitol Hill. And she said while on Capitol Hill, she was subjected to a sexually hostile workplace. There was harassment in the traditional sense, people asking people out for dates; the person to whom she reported was openly physically interested in her. And then just the overall milieu, the work milieu-conversations were inappropriate. And she said she knew that she could go to HR, but she chose not to. And she said she knew the policies, the practices and how you could make a complaint. But she chose not to because after she talked with her other colleagues, men and women, what they told her was, if you do that, you’re likely not only to limit your career opportunities here, but outside of the organization. You won’t ever begin to fully understand the consequences and the ramifications of complaining about this because of the power of the person in the job.

And so essentially, she began to consent to it. And that’s a really interesting dynamic that I had never thought about. So on one hand, she said, ‘I knew I could have complained. I chose not to because I knew, I factored in what damage it would do to my reputation, professional reputation, going forward.’

So there is a part of people, especially those of us who are upwardly mobile, who decide to tolerate certain behaviors. But from the employee’s perspective, it does a couple of things, one, productivity. I can not be focused and deliver my best work, and be as efficient and effective as I can be if I’m distracted by sexual harassment in the workplace. That’s number one. Number two, it makes me not bring my true self to work because I’m busy protecting, at least the part of me that’s at risk as a result of the incidents of sexual harassment. So it is so important as we invest tens of thousands and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in an individual-think about your salary. You’re paying someone $50,000 a year; I want $50,000-plus return on that investment. And if that person can’t bring their true self, their best self, to you, then you’re losing money, and they’re not being able to flourish and thrive. So that’s the other thing.

Overall morale is people have a fundamental sense of fairness. And it is unfair if the word gets out that this is an organization that tolerates sexual harassment or, in worse cases, encourages it. It so affects the overall culture and the morale and the sense of well-being, that you-it’s just countless. We can’t even measure the damage that it does to organizations.

Designing a culture where you explain to people what may not rise to the level of legal consequence, but it is of consequence to the culture, to the overall wellness of the workplace. It becomes a really critical part in finding, retaining, and promoting the right people. So this focus, almost a maniacal focus on culture now is the answer versus having new laws, new rules. You see, we’ve had new rules and new laws on the books for a very long time. Yet we still have sexual harassment and other forms of workplace harassment and discrimination. If rules could solve for this, then we wouldn’t have a problem 20 or 30 years later. I mean, we’ve had a Civil Rights Act Since 1964. And yet we still have race discrimination claims. We still have age discrimination claims. We have all of these things in spite of rules. So what we’ve now got to do is really focus on how we change the culture in an organization, so the culture itself exists and it pulls people who don’t engage in good behavior out. And that’s difficult. I mean, think about it. Your star performer is known to flirt the line, if not cross the line, with respect to inappropriate workplace behavior. Are you prepared to fire that person, even if it means you may lose a major contract? That’s when employees will judge who you are and what this company is really about. They’re going to judge you on what you do, not what you say.