Being silent is a loud statement on sexual harassment in the workplace

As companies grapple with issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault, what role do corporate communicators play?

Few people have read the Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly stories and haven’t been horrified, but they have also raised the issue of what it really means for company executives to "be silent."

Most public relations executives have long understood that "no comment" is a very loud comment. In the arena of sexual harassment and sexual assault, all of us are now appreciating that being silent is being complicit. That being silent is quite a loud statement.

As companies grapple with issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault, what role do corporate communicators play?

While much attention gets focused on a company’s communications after the crime has been committed and made public, attention is required long before. Specifically, how does the communications organization support the CEO, human resources, and the overall enterprise by nurturing a culture where this doesn’t happen in the first place, and when it does, the culture encourages women (primarily) to come forward? How do we assure we treat the subject with the seriousness we know it deserves but often doesn’t get?

First, it starts at the top. If the boss is using inappropriate language or uses executive retreats and conferences to misbehave, that behavior will be mirrored by younger men. If the boss tends to look the other way or not treat seriously complaints that make it to his (usually) office, then the culture will follow.

C-suites must adopt a zero-tolerance policy. Company mission statements that articulate the importance of diversity, respect for others, etc., are a dime a dozen. In fact, if they’re bland and generic, I’d argue they do more harm than good. Employees know what’s "real" and what’s not; generic statements send a message to employees that the document was a "check the box requirement" of being a "good" business.

Real corporate character – that which makes the company unique and valued – is articulated in these documents and the language is genuine and authentic. In turn, so is the behavior.

And that is where communications professionals need to spend more and more of their time: driving corporate behavior.

One complicated, difficult issue for corporate communicators may be rooted in arbitration clauses that most companies require employees to sign. These usually demand that any settlement remains secret. How do we support keeping things secret if we also believe remaining quiet means being complicit?

That’s a tough one. Most people believe that the volume of women speaking out, including the scale of the #MeToo effort, has (hopefully) started to make a positive difference in the workplace.

There is strength in numbers. Speaking out and being public helps. But if companies require silence in exchange for settlements, how do we reconcile this?

There’s no easy answer. Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who left the network, sued Fox, and helped to get Roger Ailes terminated, has published a new book, "Be Fierce." I encourage you to read it; she writes eloquently on this topic and the subject of arbitration, in particular.

If nothing else, corporate communicators should appreciate that the volume of #MeToo stories suggests this problem is ubiquitous and therefore deserving of serious and immediate attention in virtually every organization. It’s our obligation to help make that happen.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group. he can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com

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