The ever-evolving and increasing allegations involving Harvey Weinstein, the Oscar-winning Hollywood based movie producer, make for incredibly distressing reading. Even more distressing is the sheer number of female friends of mine who have taken to social media to post #metoo and indicate that they have also been the victim of sexual harassment, or worse.
Of course, my personal distress at all of this is a million miles from the point. My distress is nothing compared to what Weinstein’s accusers have been through. Or indeed the millions of women who are finally feeling able to say, ‘enough is enough’.
And it’s true. Enough is enough.
It’s quite obvious to me – as I’m sure it is to everyone who is following the Weinstein story – that at its heart this is a leadership issue. Let me be very, very clear here and say this; if the allegations surrounding Weinstein are true, then a number of very serious criminal offences have been committed, and the full force of the law across numerous jurisdictions should be brought to bear on the matter and on Harvey Weinstein. But beyond the question of legality in this case (and I am keen that these are not downplayed in any way – sexual assault is a criminal offence), what is also at play here is a question of leadership power. And crucially, the abuse of that power.
“In any relationship at work between a leader and his or her staff, the fact that the leader has power means that there is always going to be a significant question mark over the question of consent.”
Let’s call a spade a spade and get this out of the way; leaders have power. We can deny this as much as we like, and we can argue that ‘power’ has no place or part in modern leadership. We can talk about open-plan offices and the leader simply being ‘one of the team’. We can point to numerous culture initiatives that have served to cloud or mask the traditional power – and outdated power dynamic – that existed in workplaces of old. But the truth remains – a leader still has considerable power.
It’s how we choose to use that power that is absolutely key.
In a previous role, I worked for a well-known children’s charity. In many ways, it was a dream job. I led the marketing and fundraising team and I absolutely loved it. I went home each day with that rare sense of having ‘made a difference’. After five years in the role, I discovered that the CEO was sleeping with a number of the staff members. I want to be crystal clear about this. There was no suggestion that any of this was being done without the consent of all parties ‘involved’. None at all. And, to be even more clear, consent is absolutely key. Consent matters. I want to ensure that this is fully understood in this story.
The thing is, I think that for a leader, consent is the absolute baseline. A leader’s bar for this type of behaviour absolutely must be set at ‘consent’ at the very, very least. But in fact, I believe that as leaders our bar must be set higher. Much, much higher. And it must be set higher because, like it or not, we have power in the workplace and this power clouds everything else. Including consent.
In any relationship at work between a leader and his or her staff, the fact that the leader has power means that there is always going to be a significant question mark over the question of consent. As leaders, it is our responsibility to recognise this and acknowledge it. It is also our responsibility to act on it. By ignoring it we risk doing incredible damage to the people in our organisations or to the organisation itself. And in all likelihood, to both.
“Often, ‘trade-offs’ are made for what is considered to be high performance, withstanding poor behaviour. Poor behaviour is poor performance.”
So, what do I mean by ‘act on it’?
I believe that leaders must disclose all relationships at work. They must be fully disclosed to the most appropriate person (HR, their own manager, the Board) and they must be disclosed in an appropriate and timely way. Just as leaders are expected to disclose ‘conflicts of interest’ (at IML the leadership team discloses conflicts on a quarterly basis), so we should be expected to disclose ‘personal relationships’ inside the workplace. For me, this is absolutely essential.
In addition to ‘leadership disclosure’, Allison Keogh – an expert in leadership, culture and change and Director of Expansion Consulting – recommends that the following steps should be taken within the workplace to act as an appropriate ‘check and balance’ to the power that the leader has;
- Know your current situation. Many organisations have a ‘blind spot’ in this area, thinking it is not relevant or occurring in their organisation. Confidential staff surveys routinely focus on ‘engagement’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘diversity’, but rarely overtly ask questions about harassment, bullying, intimidation or poor behaviour. Leaders and HR should survey people on the extent of issues, the level of reporting and satisfaction with the handling of complaints.
- Build it into your values, strategy and goals. Values and culture statements need to specifically focus on equality, respect and inclusion and crucially detail what they mean. But they are not enough. Nor are policies. You need to have a strategy and specific goals that you are accountable to, talk about, measure and review on a regular basis.
- Create the environment for transparency and disclosure. Share the values, strategy and goals with all staff and your steadfast commitment to them. Reward and celebrate people who are promoting and defending the values. Agree on a philosophy of dealing with complaints in a way that you would if it were to be made public. For example, if you wouldn’t want it to be publicly known that you have protected a perpetrator, then don’t protect them.
- Establish shared responsibility and power. Keep absolute or implied power in check. Establish a coalition of champions at all levels of the organisation, with structures and processes that give them power to safely escalate complaints. Ensure that there is more than one avenue for complaints, with measures to protect people from repercussions for reporting.
- Embed accountability within processes. Often, ‘trade-offs’ are made for what is considered to be high performance, withstanding poor behaviour. Poor behaviour is poor performance. Include behavioural expectations in recruitment and selection, induction and performance review processes and give them sufficient weight. For anyone in a position of power and influence, build in confidential 360 feedback with targeted behavioural questions.
In my own case – back at my dream job at the children’s charity – I made the difficult decision to talk to the CEO about his behaviour. Unfortunately, this fell on deaf ears. Undeterred, I approached the Chair of the Board. I met him for breakfast to tell him what was ‘going on’. And the outcome?
The Chair of the Board asked me to leave the organisation that same afternoon.
(Apparently, the CEO was performing well and getting results. The CEO’s relationships with staff members were his own business, not mine or the Board’s, and my position in the organisation was now untenable).
“We remain such a long way from leaders acknowledging the power they have and taking responsibility for using this power ethically and appropriately.”
Unfortunately, that’s what we’re up against. And this is one reason (I stress, one reason) why I find the Weinstein story and the #metoo campaign so distressing; we remain such a long way from leaders acknowledging the power they have and taking responsibility for using this power ethically and appropriately.
It’s high time that this changed. And change must start with us – the leaders. We must set that bar much higher than it is currently set. And we must do this immediately.
By David Pich FIML, Chief Executive
With thanks to Allison Keogh (firstname.lastname@example.org)