You Can’t Cure Jerks, but You Can Stop Workplace Harassment
At this point, there’s no denying that workplace sexual harassment and discrimination are serious, pervasive issues. While it’s true that the majority of problems result from the misconduct of a few bad actors, the effect of even a single bully or harasser on your team should not be underestimated. In the book The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Stanford professor of engineering and management Robert Sutton shared research which showed that even a single bad actor can seriously harm team cohesion and productivity:
- Workers being bullied or harassed by others are often 30% less productive
- It takes 5 “non-assholes” on a team to counteract the negative effects of one belligerent employee on teammates’ productivity
The bad news is there’s nothing an employer can do to reform sociopaths. However, you can effect meaningful change by reframing your anti-harassment and inclusion efforts to focus on cultivating a positive working environment and eliminating behavior that interferes with team members’ ability to do their jobs.
A few practical steps we recommend are:
Focus on behavior over beliefs: Accept that you can’t control how offenders think and feel, but you can set expectations for how they behave at work.
Keep your messaging to frontline staff positive: Fixating on problems like sexual harassment and racism generally produces worse results than highlighting the productivity and quality of working life benefits of an inclusive, professional working environment. Instead of telling staff the consequences of committing an infraction, focus on how they can stop harassment or discrimination/bullying should they witness it.
Demand managers’ awareness and accountability: While messaging to frontliners should be positive, it’s essential for managers to recognize sexual harassment and discrimination as serious problems. A clear expectation must be set for leading by example, taking reports seriously and intervening with offenders before they harm productivity or spark a full-blown legal/public relations crisis.
Discipline individuals, but don’t blame the group: While discrimination and harassment are serious and perpetrators should face real consequences, punitive measures should not be the primary focus of your anti-harassment and diversity initiatives. Diversity education that appears to blame staff for harboring biases can cause a backlash if employees feel they’re being chastised for something they did not do.
Don’t wait for an incident: Group training in the wake of a racial incident is often the worst example of this, in terms of both results and optics. If the organization has made no prior efforts to promote diversity, they’ll appear to be applying a mere band-aid to a serious wound.
Diversify your management and leadership: Multiple studies have shown that the #1 way to reduce sexual harassment and racial discrimination is to promote women and members of minority groups to positions of leadership. That said, there are often systemic barriers to these individuals’ advancement which organizations need to sort out, though that is a topic for another essay entirely.