Sexual Harassment: How Companies Can Live Values of Zero Tolerance

The adage “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” should never apply to sexual harassment situations.

There are far too many cases making headlines about how people knew, or had heard rumors, or most shockingly, ignored the truth about sexual harassment in the workplace. We have seen it in academics, sports, media, big business and politics. Sadly, egos and fear win the day too often and time after time, the company’s communications counselors get ignored. CEOs, University Presidents, Directors of Boards, Team Owners and other leaders must openly engage their communications counselor – not as an afterthought, not once the story goes public, and not to “spin” the truth.

Companies must treat the communications role for issues and crisis management in the same manner they would the IT department to prep for a cyber-attack or operations experts to prep for a natural disaster. PR pros are the crucial team members who ask the tough questions, dig deep into the issue for the truth, inspect the situation from every reputation angle and help the brand communicate the facts, while protecting the survivors. Most importantly, they are often third-party counselors who can bring objectivity to the situation and emphasize the right actions for the right reasons.

I doubt any company’s brand promise or values statement includes a clause for acceptance of any type of harassment. Preventing and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace cannot fall solely on communications. Prevention starts with culture, leadership and thoughtful policies where communications is a big piece of employee empowerment against harassment.  Companies that empower their communications function to establish policies clearly with employees and invite reporting of situations create an environment that sheds light on harassment for immediate response.

A solid PR counselor can ensure zero tolerance of harassment is where your company’s actions meet its values by taking the following steps:

Does your organization have an effective sexual harassment and anti-retaliation policy and clear processes for reporting and addressing issues?

Every company must begin preparedness planning with communications leaders or counselors by establishing clear response processes, protocols and scenario planning. This process should start TODAY, not when a lawsuit is filed or a media call is received.

Has your organization clearly defined its stance on sexual harassment, and communicated it clearly and consistently to all stakeholders, internal and external?

Today, all organizations should proactively initiate a process for reviewing sexual harassment and assault policies against best practices, especially in the wake of recent headlines. This should be an ongoing process that HR leads in coordination with PR counselors and third-party specialists. It is now more important than ever that companies create a more open and ongoing dialogue around sexual harassment and assault.

Are employees across every function and at every level aware of what to look for and how to report?

Companies and institutions must revamp or establish confidential processes to improve reporting systems. Several companies have had success with ethics hotlines or confidential mailbox reporting systems.

Has your Board and executive team agreed to the decision process and practiced it together? Are they prepared to speak externally about this highly sensitive topic?

And despite all of this, if a company finds itself in the middle of these type of accusations, it must communicate, improve and ensure values-based decisions outweigh the fear of backlash of confronting a celebrated personality or business leader.

Ideally, adequate preparation will prevent harassment, or at least provide a meaningful response, in the event such a horrible situation occurs.

The #metoo movement has received deserved attention but we must continue to keep sexual harassment survivors front and center. Likewise, it is time to ensure your organization’s brand stays true to its core values when weathering issues and crises. It is time to speak up, listen to your communications counsel and ensure future survivors know his or her voice will be heard.

About James Peters

Ketchum clients have trusted this award-winning communications leader for strategic and creative counsel since 2004 when he joined Ketchum in Atlanta. Today, as Director, Ketchum South, Peters uses his 20 years of public relations experience to craft and implement effective communication programming across a variety of industry sectors including energy, technology, retail, and healthcare. Jamey, a graduate of Wake Forest University, has a passion for family and sports. He plays tennis and coaches youth lacrosse and spends many hours cheering for his children’s teams. Follow him @jmpyankees.