How should Canadian executives respond to the #MeToo movement?

We pay our leaders handsomely to make those tough business decisions
By Hilton Barbour
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/12/2018

From freewheeling and free-tweeting presidents to the instantaneous amplification of any topic on social media, organizational leaders are now caught in an almost daily cycle of having to analyze, review and decide on a thousand new opinions and perspectives — often with a loud clock ticking in the background.

When those topics and opinions have a potentially significant impact on the mental and physical well-being of the employees under their care, then the need to be judicious increases ten-fold.

Questions bubble up: “If I act quickly, but make the wrong decision, is that better or worse than seeing how this plays out?”

“Do I move first and take a position or wait to see how my peers, my competitors, my shareholders, my employees or even my government are responding?”

“What is the cost of inaction on my people and my business?”

We pay our executives handsomely to make tough business decisions like this. And we also pay them handsomely to make business decisions that are fair, equitable, ethically right and morally just.

No one can deny the moral and ethical imperative of the #MeToo movement.

What began as a tweet related to the allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by producer Harvey Weinstein is about raising awareness of the scale of sexual harassment that occurs in our society — and bringing an end to it.

Is this a very real problem affecting millions of people? Yes.

Do we need to eradicate this problem wherever it occurs? Absolutely.

The struggle though, when dealing with issues related to human beings is that absolutes are great in theory, but remarkably hard in practice.

In theory, discrimination and abuse of any fellow human being is abhorrent and should be eradicated.

Sadly, in practice, discrimination still exists in shades from the overt to the subtle, from the explicit to the implicit.

Bluntly, we still wouldn’t have diversity and inclusion initiatives if those issues had been addressed.

We wouldn’t talk about ageism, sexism, racism, hiring inequality, glass ceilings and leadership composition if we had eradicated these problems too.

So, the question facing every single Canadian executive is “How critical is the #MeToo movement to our business and what action does it merit?”

That starts with your culture. Why culture? Well, on a granular level, culture is fuelled by the way your organization behaves and makes decisions, the way your organization creates or dilutes the energy and capacity of its people, and the tone and tenor of its leadership.

Importantly, a strong culture is a source of sustainable competitive advantage.

Get it right and your organization is more adaptive to change, more attractive to world-class talent, more creative in its problem-solving and more sought after by customers and clients.

Get it wrong and the inverse occurs.

Therefore you can’t evaluate #MeToo in any meaningful way unless you’re prepared to evaluate its impact on your culture, your capacity and your leadership. And then determine what you are prepared to do to address it.

Merely surveying employees for a perspective will inevitably arrive at a theoretical answer — they’ll rightly tell you it must be eradicated.

If you rely on subjective opinions, your well-intentioned efforts will be hobbled from the start.

It’s about knowing versus assuming. Diagnosing whether it actually exists within your organization, where it exists, and to what magnitude is more practical and infinitely more actionable.

Equally important is how your organization defines very loaded words such as “abuse” and “harassment.”

Organizations regularly fail to be explicit about how they define critical terms — like collaboration, trust or respect — leaving employees to arrive at their own (often incongruent) definitions, which lead to inconsistent behaviours. 

In this case, that’s unacceptable because the stakes are so high — explicit and unambiguous definitions are critical.

But diagnoses and definitions are merely ground zero.

How you choose to tackle what you find is where it gets interesting because — you guessed it — each organizational culture will have a different view on this.

Is coaching and training your response?

To address unconscious bias, Microsoft launched an enterprise-wide series of videos. Starbucks closed stores for an afternoon.

What constitutes an official complaint and a fireable offence? Organizations have a spotty track record of creating environments where whistleblowers feel safe to raise sensitive issues.

Without feeling safe, how many will come forward and what’s the likelihood this issue will linger within your company?

Will you take a leadership position on this or wait for revisions to the law? 

Ultimately, only you and your executives can determine the repercussions of action — or even inaction — on this topic. That rests solely with you.

What you cannot do — particularly for a topic as incendiary as this — is fail to determine your organization’s definitions, and genuinely diagnose how much of an issue this really is, within your company.

Ultimately, all organizations and all cultures are defined by what they reward — and what they tolerate.

What is your organization’s tolerance for this particular topic?

Hilton Barbour is a Toronto-based consultant with a love for marketing and a passion for culture. He can be reached at (647) 922-9300 or hilton@hiltonbarbour.com.

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