Why Power & Harassment Go Hand In Hand, & 5 Things You Can Do About It

Photograph by Peter Kramer/HBO Succession

If you’d asked me five years ago whether being a white woman had an impact on my work, I would’ve shrugged and said, “Not really.” It’s hard for the author of Radical Candor to admit, but I was in denial.

To expose the depths of my refusal to recognize reality, let me tell you about my first job after college. Shortly after I took the job the CEO’s chief of staff gave me a creepy back rub and then reached over my shoulder and touched my breast. A few months later my boss’s boss ground up against me in an elevator.

What can leaders do to prevent such things from happening in their organizations? The vast majority of leaders would be horrified to think that these sorts of things happen under their watch. And yet they do. All the time.

Here are five specific steps leaders can take to prevent harassment, which is one of the topics of my new book Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair.

  1. LIMIT POWER WITH CHECKS AND BALANCES

Unchecked power paves the way for the full range of physical violations ranging from the abusive comment to the creepy hug to a violent assault. When managers have unilateral authority, verbal, psychological, and physical harassment is more likely than when a system of checks and balances holds managers accountable for both results and behavior.

Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” What this means is not that powerful people are sexier than less powerful people. It means they think they are sexier. Which they are not.

According to psychologists Dacher Keltner and Deb Gruenfeld in the Psychological Review, power makes people more likely to think about sex, to be sexually attracted to those around them, and to demonstrate disinhibited sexual behavior. But it doesn’t mean those feelings are reciprocated by the less powerful people around them. This is a big problem because having power makes people more likely to touch others, whether or not the others want to be touched.

So if you are in a position of authority, remind yourself that every promotion puts you into a higher-risk group for getting in trouble around touch. Whatever you tell your people about being mindful of others goes double for you. Keep in mind that an unwanted hug from a superior will likely kick up a much bigger problem than one between two people with no power over each other — and that it’s more likely to happen.

Every workplace gives managers the authority to make decisions that have profound consequences for those who work for them. Traditionally, managers dole out or withhold resources; they decide who gets hired, fired, or promoted; they determine bonuses, who gets the plum assignments, who gets stuck with the grunt work, and so on.

This makes it risky for employees to report harassment or discrimination. When managers make all these decisions unilaterally, they have too much power. They can use this power to harass or bully employees, and there’s not much their employees can do about it if they want to keep their jobs. Employees are disempowered.

None of this is inevitable. It happens as a result of the choices we make about management systems and processes. You can weave checks and balances into your organizational design, or you can design a system that creates mini-dictators. If you do the latter, the unchecked power you’ve given makes harassment much more likely. No one person in an organization, including its CEO, should be able to hire, fire, promote, or pay another person without oversight.

Also, crucially, mechanisms that employees trust must be in place for reporting harassment or sexual violence. There must be more than one person to turn to. If there isn’t it’s likely that the person the victim must report the harassment to is the harasser or the harasser’s employee.

2. CREATE A CULTURE OF CONSENT

Leaders can help prevent harassment by creating and enforcing a culture of consent. One example is this: It is the responsibility of the toucher to be aware of how the other person feels about being touched. If the other person doesn’t want to be touched, don’t touch. If there’s any doubt, don’t touch.

For a whole host of reasons, it’s tempting not to talk about consent at work. It can feel awkward. It doesn’t seem as if it ought to be necessary. Isn’t it obvious? No, it’s not obvious. Yes, it is embarrassing. Pushing through the discomfort is one of the many things leaders get paid to do. Establishing a culture of consent to avoid “little” violations can help prevent way bigger/worse violations down the road.

3. MAKE IT SAFE AND EASY TO REPORT VIOLATIONS

No matter how well articulated your culture of consent is, it’s not going to prevent violations from happening. You can plaster every available surface of your organization with your policy on consent, and some people will still talk to or touch others in a creepy way. Some people will only learn what consent means by getting it wrong. That means as a leader you must do everything in your power to make it as safe and easy as possible for people to report harassment.

Yet too many organizations have a knee-jerk response to a reported violation: conduct a BS investigation to prove it didn’t happen. This is like burying one’s head in the sand. What you as a leader want to demonstrate is the organizational courage to know when harassment is happening so that you can stamp it out.

4. HOLD PEOPLE ACCOUNTABLE

Hold people accountable for harassment.
Hold people accountable for harassment.

If there are multiple complaints of unwanted touch, even if it’s lingering or too-tight hugs, and if the person doesn’t seem to be changing behavior despite clear feedback, it is time to fire that person. And of course, some violations are so egregious that there can be no second chance.

Leaders need to make this as clear as possible. Everyone knows if they embezzle money from the company they will be fired instantly if they are caught and that there are multiple safe ways to report embezzlement. The same needs to be true for sexual harassment.

5. CALCULATE THE OPPORTUNITY COSTS OF HARASSMENT

If the men who harassed me knew they’d be fired instantly for such behavior, there’s some chance they wouldn’t have done those things to me. Instead, what I knew is that I would’ve been ignored or even punished if I’d raised what happened. So I remained silent.

As a result, the CEO never knew what was going on in his own organization. He probably didn’t want to know. What if he’d treated harassment not as an unpleasant risk but as a competitive threat? Then he would have taken proactive measures to make sure that there was a culture of consent and enforcement mechanisms in place so that the men who physically harassed me knew that there would be consequences and that it was safe for me to report what they had done. That would have been better for me — and for him.

Why did it matter to him? I never sued. What did he lose? Let’s face it, nobody could do their best work while being harassed. In my next job, where there was a culture of consent, I was able to do my best work. I created a business that was on a $100 million/year run rate within two years. I believe that better working conditions were critical to that success.

If the CEO of my previous company had put in place the kinds of checks and balances that would have discouraged the predatory behavior I experienced, it might have been one of the best investments he ever made. This is a universe-through- a-grain-of-sand way of explaining why diverse, well-functioning teams are good for business.

Leaders today need to approach the problem of sexual harassment with why psychologist Jennifer Freyd calls “Institutional Courage.” When they fail, they betray both the victims of sexual assault the organization’s own long-term interests.

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Learn more in my new book, Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair. Learn how we can recognize, attack, and eliminate workplace injustice ― and transform our careers and organizations in the process.

Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair
Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair

Read the review in Publishers Weekly >>

Kim Scott is co-founder of two consulting companies based on her bestseller Radical Candor & her newest book, Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast & Fair.

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