A Step-by-Step Guide to Responding to Allegations of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Leaders often feel uncomfortable and unprepared to respond to these allegations when they arise.

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By Mary Gentile

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We hear a lot these days about creating a "speak up" organizational culture, but we don't hear nearly as much about how to listen and truly hear the messages our employees may bring to us. It's never good news; it's always a bad time; it's often costly; and it's doesn't reflect the way we want to see our organizations and our leadership.

Related: The Harvey Weinstein Scandal Is a Clarion Call to Men In Positions of Leadership

Recently, this challenge of listening for values has received a lot of attention around the alarming number of allegations of sexual harassment and abuses of power that have surfaced in business, in the sports arena and in the realm of politics. The good news is that this misbehavior is getting attention and being roundly condemned. The bad news is that it appears to be more prevalent than anyone wanted to believe. The challenging news is that leaders often feel uncomfortable and unprepared to respond to these allegations when they arise.

Research and experience have shown us that if we want to encourage individuals to voice and enact their values in the workplace, an effective strategy is "rehearsal": that is, pre-scripting, practicing and peer coaching around the words and actions that will be successful when we want to correct an errant practice. In my work at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, specifically the Giving Voice to Values platform, I have recognized that leaders require the same sort of rehearsal when it comes to the question of how to "hear" these difficult messages when they arise.

There are a few strategies that can be useful. Recognize that there are two components to an effective response when an employee raises an allegation of sexual harassment: first, managing ourselves and second, responding effectively to the employee.

Related: Don't Be Blind to Workplace Harassment: 5 Tough Questions to Ask

Regarding managing ourselves, recognize that the first response may well be emotional for all the reasons mentioned above (bad timing, bad news, fear of costs, fear of reputation damage, even concern whether the allegation is genuine). There are a few tips for managing these emotional reactions, regardless of the nature and severity of the allegation:

1. Pause.

Breathe before you speak.

2. Affirm the issue's importance.

Let the messenger know that this is an important issue and that we take it seriously: I appreciate your raising this issue. It is important and critical to our organization that we treat each other with respect.

3. Buy time, if necessary.

If the messenger has caught you off-guard, in a public place or at the end of a meeting, you can tell the employee that you want to give the issue the attention it deserves and set a time for a dedicated conversation about it.

Related: Corporate Boards Should be Demanding Management Answer These 5 Questions About Company Culture

4. Commit.

Assure the messenger that you want all the information; that you are assigning a dedicated and appropriate individual to investigate. Explain that you may not be able to share every detail along the way, due to legal requirements and a responsibility for fair treatment and privacy, but you will make sure that the messenger knows everything that you can share and that you will "close the loop" with him or her.

5. Set expectations about timing.

Give the messenger a sense of what sort of timing they can expect with regard to your circling back with any updates and the closing of the loop, so they are not left wondering about your seriousness.

6. Set expectations about public communication.

Explain what you can and cannot say during the process of investigating the allegation, so the messenger does not "fill in the gaps" with their own -- perhaps inaccurate -- interpretations.

Related: The 'Al Capone Theory' Shows How Sexual Harassment Hurts Your Bottom Line, Too

7. Repeat step two.

Affirm that this is an important issue and that you take it seriously: I appreciate your raising this issue. It is important and critical to our organization that we treat each other with respect.

And most importantly, mean what you say! Often, we find ourselves reacting emotionally, defensively or fearfully, and then say things that we don't really mean. As a result, we can feel caught in our words and find ourselves digging in our heels and going down a path that we never meant to travel. By literally rehearsing what we can say and thinking through what we truly feel, we can be both less emotional and more genuine.

This "rehearsal and pre-scripting" is not intended to be a rote exercise, or a memorized speech. It is intended as a way for us to connect with our true commitment to the health of our organizations and our respect for our employees, so a momentary emotional reaction does not over-shadow our true best selves. The most important message we can give the employee who reports sexual harassment is that of authentic concern and a commitment to address any misconduct that may exist.

Related Video: 'A VC Massaged My Shoulders in a Meeting': the Unique Challenges for Women Entrepreneurs

Mary Gentile

Creator/Director, Giving Voice to Values; Professor, University of Virginia Darden School of Business

MARY C. GENTILE Mary C. Gentile is creator/director of Giving Voice to Values, professor of practice at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, senior advisor of the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program, and consultant on management education and leadership development.

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