David Bray, Founder, dbray Media
In the back half of 2017, it seemed like every day another powerful figure in the media was being brought down by sexual harassment charges. From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, the deluge of such accusations has been occurring at such a regular rate that Time has named “The Silence Breakers” — men and women who reported such harassment and assaults — its “person of the year.”
Of course, #metoo isn’t just a media phenomenon. We’ve seen similar scandals unfold in advertising, athletics and politics, among other industries. In many cases, they not only bring irreparable damage to reputation of the men involved, but to their companies and organizations.
Given the breadth of such incidents, no one should assume that they’re safe. Instead organizations should treat sexual impropriety allegations as an inevitability rather than something that can be prevented. Then they should coordinate a playbook for their legal, PR and HR departments. Here’s how:
1. Get your facts straight. If you have an HR department, confer with them to get a thorough accounting of your current situation. Have there been any incidents or complaints related to sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior? If there has been a complaint, investigate. Anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty and charges along these lines can be devastating to someone’s career, so handle the matter with utmost discretion. If it’s a he said/she said incident, then that’s a different situation than if there’s a pattern of multiple accusers. At the same time, recognize that it takes courage to come forward, so don’t be skeptical of an accuser’s claims and never dismiss them.
2. Bring your three teams together. A sexual harassment claim has legal, HR and public relations ramifications for a business, so bring those three teams in to determine a course of action. If an incident has occurred, get it on the record and make sure all three teams are aware of the current status.
3. Formulate a stance. If your business hasn’t created a written stance on sexual harassment, now is the time to do so. Obviously, any business’s baseline stance should be to take sexual harassment claims seriously, but now is the time to codify what is acceptable and what is not. Outlining in precise terms that it is not acceptable for a male to comment on woman’s appearance in the workplace is one example of articulating a stance for a grey area and showing exactly where the line stands. HR needs to create workshops with internal teams to educate and inform employees on the company’s stance on the issue. The stance should be clear to employees and people who follow the company. Doing so won’t prevent an incident, but make it obvious that such conduct doesn’t reflect the company’s values. If an incident does occur, it will be much easier to recover from.
4. Plan for an incident. While sexual harassment claims aren’t inevitable, simple math dictates that the larger a company is, the greater the odds of an occurrence. Since even small companies can be subject to such incidents, the smart approach for all companies is to plan ahead for an incident. HR, legal and pr can work together to figure if employees from the company can talk to the media, who the company’s point person will be for the issue and what legal and disciplinary steps the company will take. The plan should be so well formulated that it basically follows an “If X, then Y” flowchart and there’s no ambiguity about what should be done.
These steps are suggestions. Whatever course a business takes, the goal should be to be prepared for an incident and mitigate its damage as much as possible. As we have seen, one bad apple really can bring a whole company down. But if a company is prepared then it can withstand the worst and maybe root out the bad apples before the rot sets in.