National Article Provides Valuable Reminders Regarding Harassment

Bart Castle SPHR
September 14, 2007 — 1,749 views  
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National Article Provides Valuable Reminders Regarding Harassment In the September 12, 2007 edition of the Wall Street Journal, a front page story describes a nasty, on-going lawsuit being waged between technology giant EMC Corporation and a number of its former saleswomen. How the matter will ultimately be resolved is yet to be determined. At this juncture, the only people benefitting from this now full scale legal battle are likely the attorneys from both sides. However, even without a final determination, the suit provides a number of valuable reminders to companies regarding potential harassment. While it is reasonable to say that nothing can absolutely assure an organization it will not be subjected to allegations of harassment, lessons from EMC’s adventure will likely reduce the likelihood an organization will find itself on the front pages of national newspapers, the Internet, national news programs and the like. Companies must be thoughtful about the messages they are sending when striving to get results. The story begins with the line, “EMC Corp. has long prided itself on its hard-driving sales force.” (Bulkeley, 2007) The fact that the sales force was hard-driving does not inherently mean anything. However, in most hard-driving environments, be they sales or other, something is traded to sustain the hard-driving. Humans do not work devoid of motivation. Given decades of research suggesting money alone will not motivate long-term, other things must be added to the mix to produce a sustained hard-driving attitude. Perhaps, in this instance, the implied, unintentional message over the years was, “As long as you sustain an exceptionally high level of production, we will pretend not to see potentially discriminiatory or harassing conduct or allow (though not directly condone) you to do those things which you suggest help us reach our goals, so long as the potential risk of what you are choosing to do is outweighed by your production.” Companies must be intentional about the messages they send employees at all levels. In virtually all cases where organizations are alleged to have condones harassment, the executives defense begins with the assertion, “We could not be guilty of this, we have a policy against harassment and do not condone harassment.” Having a policy, along with a spokesperson to spout the policy when challenged legally, questioned by a national news group or both is VERY different than actually prohibiting harassment. The first is verbal (or written) the second is behavioral. In the previous item above, we noted, perhaps unintentionally the organization’s behavior – regardless of its written policies - sent the wrong messages. In 2007, an organization must be intentional about the messages it sends. What does that intentionality require? Perhaps one of the most important elements of intentionality as it relates to the communication of policy is consistency between the spoken (written, electronic, etc.) word AND how the organization’s manager act. The spoken (or written) and behavioral elements must match one another if the spoken is to be believed. While not all persons can articulate the communication notion that over 90% of the message is typically attributed to nonverbal signals, virtually every adult has heard the term, “You must walk the talk.” As such, when organizations who say they prohibit harassment substantiate allegations of harassment, they must take tangible, behavior-changing action – especially with high level performers. While practically this can be difficult and expensive in the short-term? Consider these questions. How expensive could a somewhat negative front page story in the Wall Street Journal be? How expensive is it to litigate a suit through several levels of the state, federal, or both judicial systems? How expensive is a class-action lawsuit (which some single allegations morph into unexpectedly)? How expensive is it to become unattractive to an entire group of potential high performing applicants? How much revenue might potentially be lost, which the organization never knew it had a shot at? Companies who look to change their culture should anticipate some (or a great deal of) resistance and work to ensure that those who are the most potentially resistant either demonstrate they accept and will work according to the new expectations or leave. We play games in organizations. We use such statements as, “Humans are unpredictable. You simply never know who will do what.” While there is some truth in this statement, we also make statements such as, “Bill (or Sarah) reacted just as he (or she) has when we’ve introduced changes in the past.” Therefore, rather than hiding behind corporate legalese, (We’ve always had a policy against this) organizations seeking to alter problematic, or outdated aspects of their culture need to determine those employees most likely to resist such changes and get the typically resistant employees to confirm their understanding of how the new expectations will look behaviorally. The response to the amazingly common question, “Will this harassment training mean we must act differently?” should be answered with questions such, “Do you presently have conduct inconsistent with what you heard?” or “That is an important question. From what you heard, what are your thoughts?” Rather than attempting to appease individuals, including high-performing individuals, who are outside the organization’s new expectations (and likely the old as well), use questions to question the individual(s) in order to move toward getting them to acknowledge their own need to change. Choosing instead to conduct generic, legalese-filled information dumps or new expectation e-communiqués, which soft-sell important expectations hoping the desired result will occur is likely time wasted. EMC may prevail. The allegations may, as they assert, “Be without merit.” Yet, what type of bottom-line hit is being taken to wage this current war in the pages of national publications? Might it have been prevented by speaking more candidly with individuals potentially out of step with the written policy regarding harassment? If conflict regarding a change or alteration to the culture is going to occur with employees, especially over key issues, let’s have it occur sooner rather than later. Assuming individuals who have a track record of doing their own thing will adapt to announced or written changes alone is naïve at best. While conflict can be difficult, late stage conflict is even more difficult and typically includes greater complexity and thus greater resource consumption. Companies who are the most effective at recruiting and retaining employees are those who know their own culture well enough to describe it with brutal honesty to potential employees. A final consideration or reminder which can be gleaned from the story has to do with how clearly organizations communicate who they are – good and bad. It is possible to have a fine person, a fine organization and no match. Several women quoted in the story allude to the strongly competitive culture of the sales force at EMC and describe that culture as a strength of the organization. Others, including the plaintiffs, viewed that competitive culture to have produced license to do whatever one chose (within very wide boundaries) in order to get accounts. Is it possible both perceptions have merit depending upon the individual’s own perspective? Is it possible for an individual to succeed at high levels in one environment and yet be unsuccessful in a similar, though not identical environment? Questions like these will be increasingly important as the labor market tightens. If organizations begin to simply chase FTEs, the likelihood for organizational/employee mismatches and the blaming games that can result from such mismatches will likely increase. Effective organizations use inoculation theory in their hiring processes. They understand if they share even the challenges present in their organizations most candidates who come on board and encounter one of the previously discussed challenges likely say to themselves, “Oh, here is that item we discussed in the interviews – this organization is trustworthy.” Whereas candidates who come on board and discover a world very different than the one discussed in their interviews likely say to themselves, “Wow, they hid this from me – this organization is not trustworthy,” and/or “Oh, I’ve come to an organization where the ends justify whatever means I believe are necessary to accomplish my specified goals.” As noted early on, the facts regarding the litigation are in dispute. The purpose of this piece is not to disparage EMC. Nor is the purpose to disparage the perceptions of the plaintiffs. The truth, as is often the case, is likely to be found somewhere between the assertions and perceptions of each of the sides. Each side apparently believes strongly it has the evidence necessary to prove its case. Frankly, both have already lost a great deal of time, emotional energy and likely money (with more of each almost certain to follow on both sides). The purpose of this piece has been to present several specific areas, which an organization might give further consideration in order to reduce the likelihood it will be receiving calls from major periodicals for anything other than – subscriptions.

Bart Castle SPHR


Bart W. Castle, of the Sapio Group, LP, has been involved in virtually all facets of human resource management over the past two decades.