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what the #MeToo movement means for workforce diversity & inclusion strategies.

Workplace diversity should be top of mind for corporate leaders. The recent wave of workplace harassment revelations shows that organizations lax in addressing violations are at significant risk — to their workforce, their brand, their leadership and certainly their share prices. Fostering a stronger diversity and inclusion (D&I) culture, among other measures, can help mitigate this problem.

It seems every day another well-known corporate leader, politician or celebrity is called out for unprofessional behavior. In the U.S., the list of accused offenders has been growing; the strength of the #MeToo movement is encouraging victims to come forward. For example, a high-profile CEO of a global gaming organization has recently come under scrutiny for his conduct. Many of these incidents have been ongoing for years, and I’m certain more will be unearthed in the months, if not years, ahead.

Some organizations have allowed these problems to fester because of critical gaps in their policies and practices. One of the biggest deficiencies that I see is the absence of a safe and neutral way for victims to report abuse. Some are hesitant to turn to HR because the department is perceived as biased towards the organization, and workers feel they may not be adequately protected against backlash. Additionally, victim blaming still occurs on a regular basis, despite today’s heightened social and corporate awareness.

What does this tell us about the D&I efforts of many companies? A monolithic leadership block is slow to detect and react to the issue of harassment. A diverse workforce doesn’t completely prevent violations, but it’s a solid foundation for ensuring employees of different backgrounds have equal representation. An organization possessing many perspectives helps its leaders to become more aware of the needs of all of their talent, and not just the majority.

A second part of this equation is that leadership should also be equally diverse, and this is an issue for many organizations. According to Bloomberg, women make up just 27% of the FTSE 100 executive boards, and just 10.6% of Fortune 500 board seats. Of these 500, a record number of CEOs last year were women — 32. While it’s a new benchmark, female chiefs still represent just 6.4% of the total. A new Randstad US study also finds that only 54% of those surveyed agree that their companies have good representation of female leaders.

Good business practices

Companies with a strong D&I culture tend to achieve better results. McKinsey has reported that companies that are gender diverse are 15% more likely to outperform their peers, and those that are ethnically diverse are 35% more likely. Additionally, if recent headlines have taught us anything, it’s that harassment cases are costly. In the U.S., just one case involving former Fox News anchor Greta Carlson cost the news giant $20 million in settlement costs. In the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the company bearing his name has been settling with his accusers for decades. The list of companies spending millions in legal fees, settlements and regulatory fines seems endless.

One advocate of D&I efforts suggests that women leaders can bring a different perspective than their male counterparts, and this helps organizations reach innovation and business success more quickly. Tamara Box, managing partner for Europe and Middle East at international law firm Reed Smith LLP, is a founding member of the 30% Club Steering Committee, a group of executives promoting female representation on FTSE 100 boards. She told Bloomberg that companies with a critical mass of women leaders not only perform better but also achieve greater workforce satisfaction. More diverse leadership can also provide the experiential background needed to form policies that will help guard against instances of harassment.

Box points out that the current wave of sexual harassment cases adds to the urgency for more D&I attention in the workplace because they are highly disruptive to morale. In the Weinstein instance, she said, it’s “graphic proof that an unequal society fosters a toxic environment that is detrimental to not only individuals, but also corporations.”

Regulatory concerns grow

In light of the recent harassment cases, regulatory authorities have taken notice. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has cited five principles for preventing harassment in the workplace, including:

  • committed and engaged leadership
  • consistent and demonstrated accountability
  • strong and comprehensive harassment policies
  • trusted and accessible complaint procedures
  • regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization

As a footnote, the EEOC cites the need to post diversity program information within the workplace to help engage workers.

In the EU, the commission recently announced that in 2018 it plans to issue updated anti-harassment policies following its declaration in 2017 as a year to fight violence against women. In India, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has launched an online platform for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.

Unfortunately, workplace harassment is a persistent problem, and no amount of regulations will be enough to dissuade every offender. The good news is that with increased awareness, more victims will feel safe enough to come forward and organizations are taking steps to educate their workforces. All of this helps to foster a more assuring workplace.

Companies themselves are also becoming more aware of the need to develop stronger programs to educate their staff and discipline violators. As businesses start to do this, I have no doubt that many will realize the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce in the battle against harassment at work.