How business leaders can stand in support of the #MeToo movement

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.
Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

Years ago, my coworker confided in me that a senior leader had sexually harassed her on a business trip. After wrestling with the incident for over a month, she wanted my advice on whether to report it to management.

My peer did end up lodging a complaint with another executive leader. The harasser was swiftly fired.

Among her many hesitations with stepping forward was questioning whether the organizational culture was one which would protect a sexually harassed junior employee, over a senior male leader. Her fears were valid; women and people of color were conspicuously absent from leadership roles in this technology company. During my tenure, I never heard management commit to creating a diverse and inclusive culture. It's no wonder women leave the industry at a 45 percent higher rate than men.

But it's not just technology companies. The watershed #MeToo movement this year finally gave a platform to survivors of sexual assault and harassment. Decades of abuse and misconduct by powerful men have been brought to light at industries as diverse as film, food, media and politics.

Despite the larger sociopolitical movement, I don't believe that more survivors have been enabled within their companies to step forward to report workplace harassment and discrimination, even now. For that to happen, we need more top leaders, particularly men, to explicitly show solidarity with social movements like #MeToo.

Companies and their leaders have a unique opportunity to publicly take a stance to denounce bad behavior and encourage those who have experienced discrimination, harassment and abuse to come forward in an effort to drive larger organizational change.

Sharing a personal experience, or experiences, of misconduct — sexual or otherwise — takes immense courage when your job is on the line. Equally risky and courageous is when leaders drive these uncomfortable conversations, often never having experienced it firsthand.

What's at stake if leaders don't?

"Consider the issue and how responding — or not responding — will impact your employees, clients, customers, shareholders, and your other stakeholders," Tim Ryan, PwC's U.S, Chairman and Senior Partner, tells me. "Speak out for what you think is right even if not everyone will agree with you, because that is what a leader does." Ryan also chairs the Steering Committee of the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion.

How can leaders communicate effectively on these challenging issues? Here are four best practices on how to be authentic and actionable:

1. Tie your position back to your business

These issues often have a moral and social cost. But as a business leader, you must tie it back to the business case when making a statement.

If your employees are deeply affected by the issues at hand — sexual harassment, immigration reform and Black Lives Matters are three hot-button topics that deeply impact the identities of many workers today – the business case makes itself. There's the high, incalculable cost of sexual harassment within a company and how organizations stand to lose between $450 and $550 billion a year due to employee disengagement.

Take this example from Microsoft, one of the largest employers of immigrants in America. When the government decided to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote, "as an employer, we appreciate that Dreamers add to the competitiveness and economic success of our company and the entire nation's business community.

In short, urgent DACA legislation is both an economic imperative and a humanitarian necessity." His statement appealed both, to the head and the heart.

PwC's Ryan articulates why he believes more executives should vocally support the #MeToo movement: "As a business leader, it is really important that we set the tone from the top of our organizations to make clear that this won't be tolerated and that women and men who feel they have been victims should not fear coming forward," he says. "Put simply, our workplaces and communities don't work well if people are afraid, and being mistreated."

2. Choose the right platform

Select the platform that is most appropriate for your audience. If you're emphasizing a zero-tolerance company policy towards sexual harassment, consider using a company blog. Your primary audience is your employees, but you will likely get some public engagement or media attention.

If you prefer not to field questions or feedback from people outside the organization, stick to a company all-hands or an email. Not that emails don't get forwarded, or videos can't easily appear on social media, but you have a better shot at focusing just on employees.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote a Facebook post first speaking up against sexual harassment and later sharing the company's policies on it. Social media is an appropriate platform if you're ready to engage in some public discourse or scrutiny on the issue, as Sandberg did. I'd take this approach if you are seeking to appeal not just to employees, but people outside the organization too.

If an issue is of both, professional and personal relevance, consider submitting a media OpEd. Public engagement and perhaps, the risk of criticism will be high, and is a good opportunity to use your clout for change.

3. Be actionable

Demonstrate how your company plans to address the issue. Point to company policies and steps that employees can take to report incidents of discrimination. For speaking up on broader, societal issues like race relations, initiatives such as town halls or closed-door listening sessions with affected employees are appropriate and relevant.

If you can emphasize your company's core values or culture within your statement, do so. PwC's Ryan points to the company's core values of "to act with integrity, make a difference, care, work together, and reimagine the possible," which guides his how he chooses which issues to respond to, and lets him do so authentically.

That way your statement isn't a one-off, but a broader effort to create a company culture where equity and candor are valued.

4. Be vulnerable

Most importantly, know that you will likely make mistakes along the way. If you're new to the issue or unsure of it, get up to speed by engaging subject matter experts, but remain humble about what you don't know. When crafting your message, ensure you have received feedback from trusted advisers who may have personal experience with the issue at hand.

Taking a stance on difficult issues has become as necessary a leadership skill as people management. Trial by fire comes with the territory.

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Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of 'The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace' (Forbes). She is also the founder and CEO of Candour, an inclusion strategy and communications practice. Ruchika is an award-winning journalist who writes regularly on the topic of leadership and diversity for publications including The Seattle Times. She currently serves as adjunct faculty in Seattle University's Communication Department.