The horror of sexual harassment

8 August 2016
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When are we going to put an end to the ‘penis principle’ — the need of some male leaders to abuse their position  and power, simply to  fulfill the whims of  their penis?

A few months back, I had a coffee with a former employee of 10 years ago. We got around to talking about a dark period in her career, about five years back, when she was the victim of continued sexual harassment from a senior leader in her company.

I sat and listened intently with a mix of sympathy, empathy, and downright anger. As a man I have to wonder: when are we going to put an end to the penis principle — the need of some men in leadership roles to abuse their position and power, simply to fulfill the whims of their penis? It’s called “the penis principle” and far too many business leaders are following this principle as opposed to the principle of “Do the right thing.”

It was spellbinding to listen to the story. It wasn’t a benign matter of uttering a few four-letter words in a meeting. No, this was far more direct. It all started with text messages. Asking her to lunch, to dinner. It became incessant — every time he would see her in the office, the texts would start. He would become angry when she would politely decline his invitations. At company events, he would drink and become more aggressive, coming up to her all sweaty and being far too “touchy.”

Her life became miserable and it was all about how to avoid him and confrontation. He was the big boss, so the pressure was enormous. She avoided the office so he would not see her and hence trigger a new flurry of text messages. Her friends tried to shield and support her. Eventually, her direct bosses learned of the issue; yet, rather than confront the big boss about his behavior, they decided to “help” by transferring her to an external sales role outside the offices. A classic case of a weak, compromised settlement instead of doing the right thing and confronting the issue head-on. It helped, but it still didn’t solve the issue as there were the inevitable times she would cross paths with what I can only call the “predator” and the messages and pressure to meet up would recommence.

Eventually, somebody had the courage to raise the matter up the line to HR. And after an investigation, it was clear there was harassment and the senior leader was immediately terminated. So, finally, some justice, after over a year of inaction — a year of hell for this dynamic young woman.

I wish I could say all is well now, but I can’t. The story is now four-plus years old, but the scars remain. With tears streaming down her face, she told me she has resigned from the company. Why? Well, it seems after the transfer out into the field, she still needed to at some point “come back” into an HQ-based role, if she wanted to be promoted to the next level. She simply can’t do it. The memories are so sharp, and the lingering damage done, that she would rather quit than re-enter her old role, which brings back far too many stinging reminders. So she has resigned, four-plus years later.

I have reflected on my own career as a CEO. And I thought of the role of alcohol in this case. None of my people has ever seen me take one sip of alcohol. Not one. And nobody ever will.  Because I don’t ever want to even take a risk when it comes to how people perceive their leader. I don’t want the gossip to be about, “the boss was drunk at the Christmas party and dancing a bit too crazy.” I don’t want even the appearance of impropriety. This is the price of leadership, in my view. Leaders are held to higher standards. We can’t drink and party like our people. We can’t get a cheap grab-in, hug a bit too closely, or make a fools of ourselves on the dance floor. No, people expect more of their leaders. They expect them to follow the principle of righteousness, not follow the penis principle, where the boss acts like little more than a horny teenager with raging hormones. And in the process, ruins people’s lives and abuses position and power, all for the whims of their penis.

I have reflected back on the three cases of sexual harassment I have had in my organizations over the years.  In each case we handled it well, and the male managers involved were summarily fired. But here is the question that haunts me:

Is it only three cases? Really?

In each of the three cases, the victim herself never raised the issue, it was brought up by others who were observing the harassment from a distance. No, the victims had all decided to remain stoic. To “take the pain” and try to manage as best they could. And this fact alone makes sexual harassment so horrid — it puts professional women in a terrible position of trying to juggle righteousness, their own dignity, and keeping their job. Not upsetting a boss.

There are three kinds of knowledge: what you know, what you know that you don’t know, and what you don’t know that you don’t know. The third is the scariest of all, scary as can be. I can say I have had three cases of sexual harassment in the past 18 years as a CEO, in my organizations. But I don’t know what I don’t know. Sexual harassment has an insidious nature. It can remain quiet. It remains often unreported. It’s subtle text messages or indirect insinuations.  My conclusion is I have had many more than three cases in my teams. I only know about three. But it might be three more. Or 10 more. Or even more.

No, sexual harassment is far bigger an issue than we think. The reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

This has to stop. And the only way to achieve this is a forceful, no-compromise dealing with the issue from the highest levels of the organization — a zero-tolerance policy. Instead of the case of the young lady I met for coffee, where her bosses put a Band-Aid on the issue rather than courageously dealing with the matter, we have to be willing as leaders to step into the fray. We must, of course, be fair and listen to all sides. But once it is clear that harassment indeed took place, we have to be swift and firm. It’s termination. Maybe even criminal charges, if appropriate. Until we send a signal of justice to all of the leaders out there who abide by the penis principle, this is going to go on unabated.

And my advice to all my “peer business leaders” who ascribe to the penis principle? Get professional help. Or get out of a position of leadership. But one way or the other, stop hurting your people. Do the right thing. Like a leader should.

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