The news over recent months has been dominated by sexual harassment claims against many powerful and influential people, including Good Morning America’s Matt Lauer and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, as well as countless other actors, directors, comedians, politicians and more. Many corporate HR departments and company executives are bracing themselves for the possibility that workplace misconduct allegations and subsequent investigations may rise as victims of harassment feel more empowered to speak up.

While your company’s actions today won’t quell any previous misconduct, there are meaningful steps any company can take to limit instances of future wrongdoing. Chief among them is instilling and fostering, a positive company culture of civil and ethical behavior, from the highest levels of the organization.

Civility Matters

It is not enough to promote an ethical workplace when uncivil behavior is tolerated at the highest ranks. In companies that have not embraced a culture of civility, harassment and other misconduct claims may be a recurring problem, because the organization’s top brass either ignores or allows inappropriate behavior to occur – particularly where high-performing employees are concerned.

In several of the recent and current celebrity harassment allegations, there is evidence that others were aware of the wrongdoers’ actions for years, or even decades, and allowed it to continue. Complacency or outright acceptance of such behavior breeds a culture where others feel emboldened to engage in harassing behavior themselves, without fear of repercussions.

Components of a Civil, Ethical Culture

Creating and implementing culture change is never easy, and it won’t happen overnight. Organizations whose leaders are intentional about instilling change should incorporate the following components, starting with the leaders themselves:

Accountability

Employees need to know that when they raise misconduct allegations, that their voices will be heard and that something will actually happen. Accountability must reach the highest levels of the company.

Values and Authenticity

Having employee policies touting the company’s ethics and values is nearly worthless if the company’s leaders don’t live and embody those values. In addition, employees should be able to believe that management is authentic and genuinely believes in the values they cite.

Awareness

It’s not enough for senior leaders and HR personnel to sit back and wait for employees to bring them misconduct allegations; they need to be aware of what’s going on in their companies and departments. Being visible and engaged may help leaders identify problematic behavior sooner.

Steps to Adopting a Positive Culture from the Top

While there’s no one magical formula to creating and implementing an ethical company culture, the following best practices can help:

  • Create, disseminate and train employees on policies about harassment, discrimination, bullying and other misconduct.

  • Hire HR professionals and engage independent investigators who have the latitude to investigate and address misconduct allegations when they are raised.

  • Have a dedicated reporting system that employees know and understand, and make sure every complaint or allegation is taken seriously and addressed appropriately.

  • Hold supervisors accountable for failing to report misconduct complaints or otherwise handling allegations in a way that is inconsistent with your company’s stated values.

  • Conduct timely, thorough investigations into misconduct allegations and treat wrongdoers equally, regardless of their title or role in the organization.

Leaders Must “Live” Your Company’s Stated Values

To be effective, everyone in the company – from the CEO down – must believe in, embrace and embody the company’s stated values and ethics.

While it’s naive to think that any business can completely insulate themselves from future harassment allegations or other claims of misconduct, instilling a culture of compliance and ethics – from the top down – can help limit future claims.

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