Executive Vulnerability - How to Create a Sexually Safe Work Environment

Yesterday we talked a bit about what executives and business owners should be learning about the Harvey Weinstein debacle. Particularly, how behavior once viewed as a perk of a corner office is no longer protected or tolerated and engaging in sexual harassment and abuse is a great way to destroy your career, business, and potentially your freedom.

Of course, there are lecherous men (and women) who use their position to take liberties, sexual and otherwise with vulnerable underlings. However, there are also cases where an executive or business owner has inadvertently put themselves into a compromising position or unwittingly created a hostile work environment for employees.

Today let’s look at the ways that people in positions of power and authority can protect themselves from the appearance of impropriety and create a healthy and safe work environment.


1# Understand that You Aren’t “One of the Gang”

One of the most common mistakes that people in positions of power make is trying to be “one of the gang.” In an attempt to be seen as casual and cool, many mistakenly become overly familiar with their subordinates. This invariably causes problems. If it appears that you are favoring one employee over others, especially if the attention appears to be flirty or overtly sexual in nature the rumor mills start running. This can damage your reputation as well as the subordinate, even if the relationship is benign. By the same token, gestures of affection can be misconstrued by subordinates who may assume that your flirtations or friendliness belie a requirement for sex.

Whether you are an executive at a huge company, the supervisor of a small team or a business owner, your position makes you different than those under your direct or indirect supervision. If you can hire, fire, reprimand, or review, the balance of power is unequal in your favor and you simply can’t be “one of the gang.”


2# Don’t Put Yourself in a Compromising Position

This should go without saying, but if an outside observer would see your interaction with a subordinate and assume that the relationship was either sexual in nature, bullying, or in other ways oppressive, stop. Don’t sit in your underling’s car, don’t have non-essential closed-door meetings with a subordinate, don’t meet subordinates alone outside of work hours or have non-work-related interactions.

In today’s more casual work environment, many can misconstrue casualness for familiarity. If your staff calls you by your first name, you are still the boss. If you were jeans and tee shirts to work, you are still the boss. If your company has after work hours sports or volunteer events, you are still the boss. As the boss, the unequal power sets you apart and while you may feel like people see you as their work buddy, they don’t. They see you as the boss. Trying to act like a buddy compromises you and can confuse them.


3# Understand that Your Position Makes You a Target

While it is true that many people in positions of power have behaved in unethical and illegal ways towards those under their supervision, it is also true that some people have targeted vulnerable executives and companies in the same manner.

Executives and business owners, especially those with either a substance abuse problem or poor judgement (see tips #1 and #2) can be financially blackmailed or threatened with exposure or law suit. Opportunists are well aware that most companies would rather pay a person to go away then to fight accusations in public.

It becomes much harder to blackmail someone if their behavior has put them beyond reproach. But, if you are yucking it up with the gang, rumors are flying about your after-work activities with a certain member of staff, or you have created a work environment that is more locker room then board room, you are making it much easier for a blackmailer’s story to be believed, to your own financial detriment.


4# Create a Work Environment that Discourages Unprofessional Behavior

The other problem with trying to be “one of the gang” is that it can create an environment where it is difficult for you to maintain boundaries or discipline the unacceptable behavior of subordinates. If staff feel comfortable telling “off color” jokes, making disparaging or sexual remarks, or gossiping about co-workers around you, you have failed to maintain a professional environment and are putting yourself and your company at risk.

When a boss either participates in or fails to halt bullying, unprofessional behavior, especially behavior that marginalizes people based on gender, race religion, beliefs, age, abilities, or sexuality it is as if he or she is saying that they agree with the statements and respect employees that share the trait less than others.

As an example, if you are playing “one of the guys” and talking about or laughing about exploits at a strip club, not only do you make the female members of the team feel less valued and sexualized, you make other men who may not agree with attending strip clubs due to moral or religious reasons feel marginalized as well. You may also make other team members feel that they have to share their own sex club stories (real or made up) in order to gain your approval. Of course, the knock-on effect is that it will be difficult for a female to come to you to complain about sexual aggression perpetrated by a co-worker when she believes that you see her as a sexual object and find objectification acceptable.

Nip unprofessional behavior in the bud ASAP. If someone is making inappropriate comments or in behaving in a way that is unprofessional, talk to them, explain why the behavior is objectionable and won't be tolerated, and make it clear that repeated infractions will result in termination. Companies must have a no tolerance policy and must enforce it. To do otherwise opens you and the company up to law suit.


5# Develop Protocol to Transparently & Quickly Respond to Sexual or Other Unprofessional Behavior

Men and women who find themselves in a position to report sexual harassment or other hostile work environment issues are going to be nervous. Will reporting the incident result in job loss or prevent advancement? Will the problem be addressed properly or will it make the situation worse? What happens now?

Larger firms generally have a reporting procedure in place through their HR department. Learn the steps in that procedure so that you can be a source of guidance and support.

Smaller firms and small businesses that don’t have an HR department or a plan in place for dealing with a hostile work environment complain should rectify this immediately.  Contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to learn your responsibilities as an employer and supervisor as well as both your rights and the rights of the accused and accuser. Their website has helpful information. You can often get help in setting up a response plan through your Union or local Chamber of Commerce.


If you or your firm is vulnerable to sexual harassment claims, you should contact a crisis management team to help you craft a strategy to deal with past issues and create a more positive work environment moving forward. As always, we are here to help. 

updated from October 2017 original article
Alexandrea Merrell