From Hollywood to Silicon Valley to the Northeast, in press conferences and #MeToo social media posts, women (and men) across America are publicly speaking out about their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. The volume of allegations makes clear that harassment is more than a problem of a few bad apples; it’s a result of a culture of unchecked power in many C-suites. At a minimum, it fosters a culture permitting unequal treatment of women, and at worst it involves C-suite executives actually perpetrating the harassment themselves.
While most people will never sit on the board of a Fortune 500 company, many will at some point hold company stock, or send their children to a college or university with a board of trustees. And if media reports about rampant harassment at those institutions surface, instead of wondering, “How did this happen?” the question quickly becomes: “How did the board let this happen?” Not surprising that the board of Fox News just agreed to a $90 million settlement after being sued by its shareholders alleging the board failed to rein in its senior executives.
In my role as president of the New England Chapter of the National Association of Corporate Directors, I work closely with board influencers from a wide variety of industries to promote best practices in governance. Many tactics for fostering inclusion are known, tested, and can be implemented immediately — but they do require a fearless champion. Some steps boards should take now:
• Ask tough questions of management to gauge their efforts in creating a culture of inclusion. At the top of the list: ask for a report of all sexual harassment complaints and outcomes, with a particular eye toward identifying any repeat offenders within the company’s ranks – and if those offenders are still with the company, demand a detailed explanation why. This especially goes for settlements with victims involving senior management, even if the settlement amounts are not material to the company’s balance sheet.
• Review the organization’s sexual harassment policies and investigation procedures, and consider creating a hotline with more direct access to the board for serious complaints involving senior management.
• Find out the details of the company’s diversity and inclusion training and programs: is it a “check-the-box” approach limited to one two-hour online module? Or is it a serious, thoughtful, approach that permeates the organization?
• When boards do have an open seat, prioritize searches for women candidates and candidates of color. Equal representation in executive and director positions is one of the best ways to promote a business atmosphere in which women feel safe and valued, and to send a message that harassment will not be tolerated — not to mention that gender diversity is good for business. Sadly, the most recent Boston Club report shows almost glacial change: the number of women directors has barely nudged upward over the past 15 years.
It is nearly impossible to imagine that we would be seeing the tsunami of serious allegations of harassment in the workplace if all corporate directors regularly asked these questions of management, or if they themselves reflected the diversity within their work force. The cultural buck stops with the board. Directors should ensure they are fostering an environment with a level playing field that allows the talent in their companies to rise, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
Beth I.Z. Boland is president of the National Association of Corporate Directors New England Chapter and Vice Chair of the Litigation Department at Foley & Lardner LLP.