Friday night I had the honor to deliver the University of Houston’s 2018 Elizabeth D. Rockwell Lecture on Ethics and Leadership. This biannual series, created in the wake of the Enron scandal, exists to remind us that legal solutions are never enough to stop ethical failures. Culture always trumps compliance.
This is the case with workplace sexual harassment. Although 94 percent of U.S. organizations have anti-harassment policies in place, what’s lacking too often is a healthy culture that inoculates organizations against toxic behaviors.
Now that we have entered the era of #MeToo, no one can escape the hot rhetoric and the promises to create zero-tolerance workplaces everywhere. It appears that we are on the cusp of a major social transformation.
Not so fast, though. It takes real and meaningful steps to ensure that #MeToo isn’t just a fad, or even a social movement, but a true cultural transformation that becomes central to the functioning of mainstream society.
How do we do it? Here are six practices we can pursue.
- Strong HR. Our profession must be extraordinarily skilled and armed with extensive knowledge and data. That is why we created the SHRM-SCP and SHRM-CP certification program, grounded in a set of competencies that all HR professionals should master. Strong HR requires courage, too. We must be prepared to make tough, unpopular calls and to step in or stand up to bad actors, no matter where they rank.
- Maniacal focus on culture. HR plays a key role in developing workplaces where every candidate and employee understands exactly what it means to work there. The right culture says to the wrong people, “You don’t belong here.”
- Real diversity. This type of diversity goes beyond ethnicity, gender, age and other obvious markers. It makes room for talent from non-traditional educational and work backgrounds and for those who don’t necessarily think like the CEO.
- Pragmatic policies. Policies are needed that can live in the real world. Fraternization policies, for example, don’t make sense because you can’t legislate human behavior. And workplace relationships are better reported than repressed.
- Smart training. Training is table stakes, but must be based on the latest data-driven evidence about what works to prevent sexual and other harassment.
- Consistent application of the rules. Women are treated the same as men. No one can be “too big to fail”—not the CEO and not even the President of the United States.
How will we know we have reached the Holy Grail of cultural transformation? We will see it in how the majority of our society relates to each other, in the values people accept as obvious and in the ways they behave in every situation. What will be accepted as “normal” behavior when my 7-year-old daughter heads into the workforce will be radically different than now.
If we don’t follow through on #MeToo to create a true cultural transformation, it’s likely we will bounce right back here again. That would be a social tragedy. We must all do our part to make sure that #MeToo is more than a hashtag.