It’s usually a prescient sign that it’s not going to be a great meeting when two women walk into your office and one is trembling while the other is on the verge of tears.
Such was the scene early in my career when I was an HR manager for a large organization. Both women were there to see me because they’d reached a breaking point. They were victims of sexual harassment by a senior leader to whom they reported, having endured a pattern of unwanted advances that they could no longer tolerate. Fear brought them into my office, but hope is what kept them there. They were depending on the values that our company espoused to be the catalyst that would get them out of an untenable situation.
After a lengthy meeting, it was clear that these women might not be the only targets of a leader who believed he was above the law. I discovered that other women in his department had similar complaints, but were concerned that in coming forward their jobs or reputations would be on the line. As I investigated further, it was evident that this leader’s poor behavior was not a new phenomenon. He’d been behaving this way for years, but it had escalated in intensity and flagrancy over the previous 18 months, following his promotion to sector vice president.
Armed with this information, I went to his manager, the president of the entire division, a man who had known and worked with the alleged harasser for more than 10 years. I’m prepared for this meeting, I thought. I was armed with evidence, victim statements and at least five women who were willing to go on the record about their personal experiences with the senior leader. These women were long-tenured high- performing employees, whose stories were credible.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the division president’s reaction.
After carefully laying out the facts and the statements from the victims, I looked at the president squarely in the eye and said, ”We’ve got a big problem and it’s got to be immediately addressed.” So, you can imagine my surprise when the first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell is this guy’s problem; isn’t he getting any at home?”
I could not believe what I was hearing, or the insensitivity of his reaction. It took me a few seconds to pick up my jaw, which had dropped onto the floor with an almost audible thud. Quickly collecting myself, I tried to focus on the president, who was explaining how much money this leader had made for the company. He had been the inventor of one of the firm’s top selling products and was a virtual legend in his field.
I could sense that the president was desperately searching for some excuse to overlook the behavior and was resistant to doing anything but sweeping this problem under the rug.
I was having none of it.
At times like these, you begin to realize that company values have far more significance than one might imagine. I knew that we were facing a situation where our values and actions might collide, and if they did, we would no longer deliver on the promise of our brand, yet alone be in compliance with the law.
Fortuitously, the company had just gone through a values-setting exercise the year before, and I had that to rely on in my argument. Not only did we establish company-wide values and publish them on our website and other social media, a poster with those values was the first thing that greeted any visitor to one of our facilities and was featured prominently in every company workspace.
They were front and center to our brand, and we took the extra step to define what those values looked like in action. We chose “Respect,” for example, as one of our core values, and defined it as “Creating a thriving culture where all input is valued and employees can count on a safe and inclusive work environment.” Another important value was “Accountability.” In action, that value meant, “Taking responsibility for one’s actions, as well has holding others accountable to do the same.”
I had three realities supporting my position in this discussion:
- The company had clearly defined values.
- The behaviors associated with living those values had been outlined.
- Since the values were widely publicized, it made it difficult to overlook violations of them.
From my vantage point, the situation being discussed with the division president was one where both respect and accountability were being challenged, and this was our moment to demonstrate the courage of our conviction for those values. I’m pleased to say that the company made the right decision, and not only complied with the law but also honored the values at the core of its brand.
Could another, less favorable decision have been taken? Might the company have looked the other way, favoring the harasser over his victims because of his contributions to corporate profits? Surely, as an experienced leader, you know the answer to those questions. But if recent events with United Airlines and Fox News are any example, customers, investors, employees and even the general public are holding companies and their leaders to a higher standard, one that has significant financial and brand ramifications if left unmet.
As a leader, you are the bastion of company values. Make sure that you know what you stand for — and be prepared to act.
Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.
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