It's a Mad, Mad World

Can you guess what year it is? Do the recent workplace headlines provide any guidance?

Can it truly be 2017? I have been questioning the year, decade and century in which we currently find ourselves. As a Generation X’er who worked her way up through the ranks over the last 3 decades across different industries, it is beyond comprehension how the current dialogue around women and work has not kept pace with its prior trajectory. While there have been some improvements led by the private sector toward equalizing the playing field for women, there are clearly still unacceptable basic behaviors simmering in many organizations that make it hard to believe we are in the year 2017 and therefore difficult to tackle the higher-order workplace opportunities.

While the numbers are still small, there has been marginal improvement. Specifically:

  • According to Catalyst, Women currently hold 10.6 percent—or 643—of the total 6,081 board seats on Fortune 500 companies, an increase of 18 percent vs. 1994.
  • Similarly, eighty-four percent—419—of Fortune 500 companies have women board directors, up from 417 companies last year.
  • According to Fortune, while just one woman led a Fortune 500 company in 1998, by 2014 there were 24 but back to 21 in 2016.
  • In addition, more women are working than ever in the US – presently 73.5 million women work representing 47 percent of the labor force vs. 29 percent in 1945, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, the numbers tell us that more women are in leadership roles and at the Board level than ever and women continue to make up a significant part of the workforce – why then do we find ourselves mired in issues which were commonplace decades ago? Why haven’t we moved to the equity challenges women face around pay, mandated paid family leave, and female representation goals in the public and private sector? Why do some women fear for their livelihoods because of their gender?

These are enormous questions facing our society today. It can be easy to take a position of helplessness or simply brush-off personal responsibility in working towards solution. After all, how am I supposed to change the behavior of someone who treats women as objects in the workplace? However, employers have a legal, and many would argue, a moral responsibility for those they employ. The one question which organizations can specifically tackle on their own is, “What can I do today as an employer to reverse this disturbing trend by ensuring that sexual harassment violations in my organization are dealt with consistently and expediently?”

As a former Chief Human Resource Officer. I find myself in situations where leaders are still discussing and debating topics that were dissected in the 1980’s – Most recently, a moderator for a senior-level HR roundtable posed the following question to the group, “Is it more challenging when coaching a male CEO vs. a female CEO? Does gender matter in your role as a Chief Human Resources Officer?”

If senior HR leaders themselves are still having conversations like these, then that’s truly a sad state of current affairs. The fact that we are still questioning the potential inability for senior-level leaders to lead in a gender-neutral way is shameful in 2017.

But clearly, there is indeed a widespread problem around male supervisor-female subordinate interactions in organizations today greater than previously imagined.

As the recent headlines remind us, manager behavior towards women and what’s deemed permissible and possible starts from the top. While there have been many articles and discussions regarding the role culture plays in encouraging misogynistic behavior (and culture is indeed a key driver in these situations), it is equally important for organizations to have a Human Resources organization in place to ensure companies are doing the right thing from both an ethical and legal perspective. Employees require an effective internal resource, which can address confidential and highly-sensitive situations. Employers must have a truly independent and capable HR team to ensure organizations no longer stand behind those who drive business results regardless of egregious and illegal behavior.

Regarding this most recent round of sexually-charged goings-on across such a wide variety of organizations, it was quite surprising that HR seemed to be an enabler in some cases, and at the very least, was not successful in helping to drive towards an acceptable solution; they were part of the conversations but were unable to provide the organization an effective means for escalation and resolution with regard to high-profile sexual harassment behavior.

What can employers do today to ensure they have the critical internal processes in place to support their employees and minimize the likelihood of ending up in the headlines? 

  • Have the right head of Human Resources. Ensure your HR leader has the ability, experience and courage to address senior-level transgressions. This individual must possess the courage and conviction to handle executive-level and pervasive, organization-wide misconduct.
  • Have a back-up plan. In the event there is a breakdown within Human Resources, companies should develop alternative reporting paths for employees, which can include leveraging Board members, hotlines, or other external resources. There are plenty of options available to organizations today; companies simply need to decide which ones to pursue and to thoroughly communicate them so every employee understands all of the alternatives available for reporting violations.
  • Have a bulletproof process for reporting. Provide employees with a fully transparent, clear process for reporting violations which include follow-up protocols and other critical steps so employees know how to escalate and what can be expected once a complaint is made. Employees should be able to answer the following questions: What happens after I report a violation? Who will know? Who will lead the investigation? How will I find out the results?
  • Have the courage to enforce zero tolerance for sexual harassment. While it’s important to have a well-communicated policy that illegal and improper behavior won’t be tolerated, it’s more important to fully impose consequences for those who violate the company’s policy and the law, regardless of who they are. Violations and consequences need to be spelled out and consistently enforced. Your company should have clear responses to the following situations: What happens if a supervisor asks out a subordinate? What happens if an employee is offered career advancement in exchange for “dating” her manager? What happens if a manager makes a verbal or physical pass at a direct report off site?
  • Have real training. Provide every leader with truly effectively training in working across genders. Education needs to focus on the full spectrum of transgressions from those violations that are clearly illegal as well as the murkier situations where companies might have said in the past “well, it’s really not that bad so let’s give him another chance.” While it seems like pretty basic stuff for many, today’s headlines show us that we clearly have a long way to go as a country.

What would I like to be writing about instead of this? A whole lot of subjects, quite frankly. I’d like to be able to interview a variety of private and public sector leaders and discuss the incredible progress we should have made by 2017 regarding equal treatment in the workplace, such as:

  • How did your company successfully place women in 50% of its Board seats? What were the biggest challenges you faced in getting there?
  • By what year was 50% of your executive team female?
  • When was gender pay parity reached? How was this achieved?
  • When did Congressional membership reach the 50% threshold of female representation for both the House and Senate?
  • When was 3 months paid parental leave passed? When were women finally able to take off 6 months post childbirth / adoption with a guarantee of re-employment?

These are the types of issues that demand focus to move us closer to a place where women and men are treated the same in the workplace.

It’s truly maddening.

Karyn DetjeComment