See more of the story

Q: How do you address sexual harassment culturally within an organization?


A: No matter how vocal we are about our values at work, we are social creatures who take our cues from the people who surround us. Sexual misconduct manifests in a field of interconnected relationships, so that regardless of how distant we seem from the offender, our words and actions still matter. To some extent, our everyday behaviors energize or muddy the ethical climate of an organization. Even our most well-intentioned comments can confirm an organizational culture where rumors or retribution are expected, thereby decreasing the likelihood that a victim will share their story. To address sexual misconduct, we must begin with the premise that we all bear responsibility for sustaining a morally engaged workplace.

However, we often fail to recognize ethical dilemmas. If we truly hope to address sexual misconduct, we must dedicate time to sharpening our awareness and embodying our values.

In sexual harassment training, facilitators often say, "We must be mindful." Yet, mindfulness is difficult, particularly in the modern workplace. Mindfulness practice is a competency of principled leadership, which allows us to recognize the way we judge situations in the moment. It gives us a space to notice when we are moved to preserve or boost our ego, rather than advance the common good.

Greater awareness also allows us to recognize our inner voice so that we can more intentionally align our behaviors with the values we espouse. Social psychologist Albert Bandura suggests several forms of morally disengaged self-talk:

Attribution of blame: "It's not my fault, she was asking for it." Diffusion of responsibility: "His boss is responsible for his behaviors." Moral justification: "They work long hours together — it was bound to happen." Euphemistic labeling: "I was just flirting." Advantageous comparison: "It's not like I killed someone!" Distortion of consequences: "It didn't actually hurt them."

To promote harassment-free cultures, we need a more mature understanding of the human condition and to act with greater intention and attention.

William Brendel is president and chief executive of the Center for Ethical Organizations at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.