The digital revolution has changed business in countless ways. One constant remains: Companies still don’t know how to deal with sexual harassment.
Recent reports of alleged harassment at Uber and Tesla suggest that technology companies – innovative as they might be – are not immune to the cultural problems that have plagued other businesses. Countenanced during the martini-swilling Mad Men days, sexual harassment emerged as a legal cause of action in the late 1970s. Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon understood that it involved, at its root, the abuse of economic power.
"Sexual harassment of women at work is sex discrimination in employment," MacKinnon famously wrote.
Lawyers inevitably get involved when harassment allegations fly. But companies must communicate, not just litigate. Communications professionals have an important role to play – a dual one, in fact. They fashion a company’s response to harassment allegations, to be sure, but they can also prevent them from arising in the first place.
Indeed, communications professionals can create a culture in which a "hostile environment" – proof of which would allow a plaintiff to prevail – cannot take hold.
Message matters. Companies must have an "equality message" – an internally used, oft-repeated assurance that the organization places a high priority on equal treatment of all employees, which includes having a work environment that is welcoming to all. This message should also convey that every employee has to play by the same rules – the rules of respect and decency.
This seems not to have happened at Uber, where Susan Fowler learned that because her harasser enjoyed "high performer" status, he would reportedly not face discipline.
After the Uber allegations created a media maelstrom, Kalanick stated that he wanted "a just workplace for everyone" and "there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behavior." Imagine if he had promulgated this message throughout the company – early and often – before the alleged behavior occurred. Imagine if something like it had been in Uber’s mission statement.
Not only does equality messaging warn employees against harassing acts, it can help companies defend against allegations that a hostile environment was "severe" or "pervasive," as plaintiffs must show to win a court case.
The equality message needs to address more than having a respectful environment. It should also educate employees in the company’s notions of equal opportunity – in advancement, compensation, and so forth. Too many companies take equality of opportunity for granted. Yearning to be meritocratic, they come across as tone-deaf.
"The system will actually give you the right raises," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told a women’s computing group in 2014, advising women engineers not to ask for raises.
Nadella’s comments provoked an immediate backlash. Being a smart man, he leapt to apologize; Microsoft is, after all, a consumer-facing business. As Uber is discovering with the #DeleteUber campaign, the boundaries between internal and external communications have become porous. Through social media, customers learn quickly about a company’s dirty laundry. If they don’t like what they see, they will take their business elsewhere.
Messaging only takes you so far; corporate chieftains must lead by example. But part of that entails using town halls, electronic communications, internal websites, in-house publications, and social media to tell the company’s equality story to its people. When companies talk to their employees, they talk to the world.
—Eric Herman is MD at Kivvit. He advises companies on labor and employment communications.
This story first appeared in PR Week.