Dec 1, 2011

You thought they were consensual emails, but it didn’t matter.

You should’ve known better, even all those years ago when you were much younger and impulsive.You both worked in the same department but didn’t report to one another or work in the same office. Regardless, the emails you shared with one another were creating a document trail to termination, or worse, for both of you. Thankfully it ended before it became a bigger surprise to you and to HR and all was filed away before things went really wrong.

No harm, no foul. Right? No discrimination or harassment and no one else had to know once it was buttoned up.

The contradiction of transparency

Wrong. Because although you had the mandatory annual cultural sensitivity/sexual harrassment/diversity training, you were still fallible humans giving in to your emotionally-driven reptilian brains, and none of the core behavioral issues were really addressed, nothing about impulse control or personal responsibility or curbing the abuse of power, no mentoring for long-term change. Your employer did everything it could to put on a happy face of compliance and “nothing to see here, move along please, and get back to work.”

And they still are. Especially when the accusations are truly serious, behaviors that go unchanged and are then repeatable as discrimination, bullying, emotional abuse, workplace violence, sexual harassment and abuse. The contradiction of transparency is apparent.

According to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article titled The Silencing of Sexual Harassment:

While the number of sexual harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been going down since 2008 — falling to 11,717 in fiscal year 2010 from a 1997 peak of 15,889 — lawyers say those figures are misleading. The reason: More companies are requiring new hires to agree to arbitrate complaints, including sexual harassment, as a condition of getting a job. Arbitration proceedings are usually confidential, and settlements are secret.

Secret pre-nup settlements that end up settling these scores in silence, but they don’t really address the problem. There’s an employment and leadership development deficit in organizations today, and now “with more women in management positions and employees who are openly gay, complaints filed by men against both male and female bosses have increased. In fiscal year 2010, 16.4 percent of EEOC complaints were from men, up from 11.6 percent in 1997.”

Another toll due to the economic downturn

There’s yet another toll the economic downturn has taken on companies today.

The fact that employers have taken advantage of it by letting go of those employees they no longer want to have around, thus increasing the likelihood of discrimination. A recent article on pregnancy discrimination highlights this. EEOC pregnancy-discrimination complaints, which had risen steadily from 3,977 in 1997 to a peak of 6,285 in 2008, have dropped off nationally to 6,119 in 2010.

And then there are the child sexual abuse charges against ex-Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky and Syracuse University basketball coach Bernie Fine, workplace cultures of silence that allowed this behavior to continue year after year. Did you know that a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds? And that’s only what’s reported. Statistically speaking, child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.

And in every kind of institution. So what happened to the leaders, both in spirit and title? There are heroes, but too many don’t do a thing because they fear for their own jobs, they fear the lawsuits, the loss of market share, the tainted brand, the tainted name.

According to i4cp‘s latest research on leadership, 84 percent of high-performing organizations invest in leadership development programs. But while the commitment to leadership development is clear, only 23 percent of all business leaders surveyed characterized their firms as “strong at developing future leaders” to a high or very high extent.

Keeping the collective silence in place

That’s telling. Time and again I read about the “talking about” of developing leadership competencies that focus primarily on the business strategy and growth, with maybe a hint or two of collaboration, communication, social responsibility and business ethics, but nothing about impulse control emotional intelligence or appropriate gender/cultural behavior, and the final delivery falls short anyway.

That’s too bad because flaws and failures show up again and again like clues at a crime scene. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, but in this greater context it’s even more meaningful to me in reflection.

Someone gets fired or arrested and others resign while the rest of us stare and shake our heads.

It’s difficult enough recruiting, hiring, on boarding, training and retaining workforces today. We do our best to screen out emotional immaturity, instability, incivility or worse, listening to our guts more than most assessments and background checks, which is part of the problem.

We’ve got policies and procedures in place to protect us and others from harassment, abuse and violence, to protect us from them; we’ve got laws and law enforcement and a judicial system as well. But it’s convoluted when “them” are those we trust, the beloved leaders and co-workers who would never hurt a fly, and institutions they work for of all shapes and sizes that vehemently protect them and keep the collective silence in place.

Justice sometimes prevails, but resigning after the fact is poor resolution and a failure of people and leadership, not policy. They fear for their own jobs, they fear the lawsuits, the loss of market share, the tainted brand, the tainted name.

All this call for transparency in the workplace today and yet we always settle in silence.

You can find more from Kevin Grossman on his Marcom HRsay blog.