Sexual Harassment: a Problem of Leadership, not HR

by | Nov 22, 2017

During much of my corporate career, I was a human resources executive for large companies, where I fired scores of jerks and creeps for sexual harassment, long before harassment became headline news.

I also was once falsely accused of sexual harassment by a nut-job of a woman.  Fortunately, her female manager knew that the allegation was totally false, because, unbeknownst to the accuser, the manager had observed the interaction in question and listened in on the conversation between me and her.  When the manager subsequently asked me what should be done about the accuser, I responded, “Get her psychiatric help.”

I later changed careers, because, among other reasons, the human resources profession was becoming just another bloated, ineffective staff function addicted to government regulations, in bed with big government, and clueless about human dynamics and organizational effectiveness.  I went on to publish a management book on the bureaucratization of HR and American business and wrote related commentaries for journals and newspapers.

One of my commentaries for the Wall Street Journal spoke about this problem of bureaucratization and caused a stir with the Society for Human Resources Management, which like so many professional associations, existed to further its own interests, to the detriment of workplace harmony and productivity.

My wife, who also is an atypical HR executive, retires in January after a career of dealing with jerks and creeps.   When she was a twenty-something early in her career before I met her, a middle-aged executive forcibly French-kissed her.   No, he was not a member of Congress or a noted media personality, but he was an obvious creep and jerk in many other ways.  And therein lies the root problem of sexual harassment.

In almost all cases, a harasser exhibits other bad behavior and bad judgment.  He is a blowhard, a bigshot wannabe, a bully, a ladies man in his own mind, a hypocrite who says all the right things but does all the wrong things, or a party-goer who drinks too much at company functions.

Speaking of company functions, a company that has alcohol and dancing at corporate gatherings is asking for trouble.  Likewise, trouble can be expected when men are allowed to behave like lotharios at company functions, and women are allowed to show up in slinky cocktail dresses with their cleavage showing.  That’s a commentary on human nature, not a prudish comment.

Women who make false accusations of sexual harassment also tend to have telltale signs of being unbalanced.  They are obsessed with their looks, they dress like female newscasters on Fox News, and they date or marry men who exhibit bad behavior and bad judgment.

Ultimately, however, sexual harassment is a problem of leadership—or, more accurately, a lack of leadership.  Leaders who are role models of proper decorum, who exhibit sensitivity to perceptions and feelings, and who swiftly deal with bad behavior will have far fewer claims of sexual harassment in their organizations than leaders who do the opposite or who delegate their leadership responsibilities to human resources.

What does leadership look like?  Here’s an example:  One time I was on a business trip with four male managers and one female manager of a department that I had recently begun managing for an old-line industrial company.  I later found out that after a group dinner, the four good ole boys had gone to a strip club instead of retiring to their rooms or finding a social activity that the female could participate in without feeling uncomfortable.  The next day I chewed out the men, put them on notice, and resolved to fire them if they couldn’t regain my trust.  They were shocked, because the previous senior management had always condoned or even modeled improper behavior.

Apparently, those in authority never had this kind of conversation early on with Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Al Franken, and other creeps and jerks.  They should be fired for this egregious failure of leadership.

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