Sexual Harassment – What is a Responsible Business Leader to do?

Another day, another astonishing sexual harassment revelation. This morning, like you, I woke to breaking news about Matt Lauer’s termination from NBC, the latest in a string of high-profile bombshell accounts of powerful people alleged to have engaged in “inappropriate sexual behavior” in the workplace.

If you’re a leader, manager, business owner or human resources professional, you may be quietly asking yourself a number of questions … and for good reason:

“Could this be happening in my organization?”

“Are we next?”

“What can we do?”

During the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work on sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace bullying issues from a variety of perspectives – as a practicing lawyer, business owner, employee, consultant and trainer – and here’s what I have learned:

Every legitimate sexual harassment, discrimination or bullying claim has its roots at the beginning of what my business partner, Jack Dempsey, calls the Pathway of Disrespect (see Jack’s short video below). Such a pathway can be long, sometimes extending back for years inside an organization. Other times, the pathway is shorter. In any case, each pathway is paved with stones of disrespect, sometimes large, sometimes small – a proposition, an inappropriate joke, disparaging comment or malicious rumor.


If you want to create an organizational culture that is free from sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying and similar bad behaviors, focus the people inside your organization on behaving respectfully. When discussions revolve around what is and is not respectful, rather than on what constitutes or does not constitutes harassment, discrimination or bullying, there is a much higher likelihood that the kinds of bad behaviors leading to eventual claims can be nipped in the bud.

Lectures about the legal intricacies of quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment, while interesting to pointy-headed lawyers, rarely resonate among employees or create meaningful or lasting behavior change. However, virtually everyone recognizes the difference between respectful and disrespectful behavior.

When you anchor your efforts in eliminating Pathways of Disrespect, you can help your organization steer clear of liability, and more importantly, you can create the kind of workplace culture that your employees deserve.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and comments.

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