By Scott Rude / Guest Column

Early in my career, when I was a young HR manag­er, a professional woman approached me claim­ing inappropriate behavior by a senior leader in our business. I made discreet efforts to resolve the issue, thinking my company would back me. In­stead, my efforts were stymied and I was made to feel I was the problem for attempting to address the concern. I soon left the company disillu­sioned, but years later my former boss expressed regret, relating to me how the perpetrator became a serial harasser and abusive boss, resulting in low division morale and business performance.

Being right didn’t make me feel vindicated – it made me sad. Peoples’ lives were unneces­sarily damaged and I left a position I once en­joyed. I’ve kept this in mind over the years and on those occasions I’ve had to work on issues of inappropriate workplace behavior.

Today, the issue is front and center, as more and more allegations of inappropriate behavior by power brokers in media, politics and corpo­rate America continue to surface. Every day seems to bring a new revelation, with corporate hierar­chies reckoning with their failure to address the actions of their people.

Indeed, it seems as though the business and political worlds are running rampant with devi­ant people in power. But that’s not true.

What is true is that 40 years after offensive workplace behaviors were first named and pro­hibited, we still have significant issues. There’s no better time to assess ourselves and our compa­nies, and find a new path toward a better work­place for all concerned.

This opportunity isn’t just a cultural “feel good” moment for leadership. It is an imperative for business – it been proven that cultures built on trust with leadership integrity are not only more engaging, but create better business out­comes. As tragic as many of these circumstances are, they present us with a moment of opportu­nity to largely eradicate this issue once and for all.

Where do we begin? Do we cover ourselves with online training for all? Practice zero tolerance and make examples of alleged violators? Write more rules and policies to establish credibility?

Sure, you could do one or more of these, but these actions mainly treat symptoms. None will get you to a long-term solution.

The answer lies in one place: leadership. There is no other factor where true intent, or the lack thereof, has greater visibility and consequence. I’ve seen leadership set the example and estab­lish a standard of respect for all, clearly articulat­ing that those who don’t follow their principles should look elsewhere for employment. That company and leadership succeeds in creating an environment of safety and engagement.

Leadership is the only organizational compo­nent able to not only change the current state, but more importantly, build a culture of respect and dignity for all. Notice that I didn’t say create a “ha­rassment-free” workplace. That’s because I didn’t have to. The leadership team that demonstrates respect and dignity is on track, needing only to continue to lead by principle and hold account­able to those principles without exception.

What are the steps leadership can take? Here’s my recommendation:

  1. Establish your values – talk them/test them
  2. Communicate your values throughout the organization and demonstrate through example how and why people must act
  3. Be candid and admit missteps when they’re made
  4. Assure outlets are available for employees to make concerns known
  5. Hold everyone accountable, including com­pany rainmakers and perceived stars
  6. Reward achievements demonstrating values and enhancing the culture

 

It sounds simple, but changing a culture takes diligence. If leadership communicates expecta­tions clearly and lives them consistently, the cul­ture will be engaging, fair, safe and open.

The caution? Failure to demonstrate those guiding principles at the top will sink any effort. We’ve been through “say it, but make exceptions for some” before. Leadership must resist that temptation and be true to its principles consis­tently. Every employee has meaning and deserves respect. Act from this premise and it will all go well from there.

Scott Rude is a human resources and leadership strategist based in Iowa City and teaches at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.