CIOs Need To Change How Their Department Deals With Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable, what’s a CIO going to do?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable, what’s a CIO going to do?
Image Credit: Christopher Porter

Any CIO that has been reading the newspaper, watching TV, or listening to the discussions that have been going on lately has picked up on a theme – sexual harassment in the workplace. There have been some big names that have been exposed as being harassers and they have fallen and been removed from their positions. As the CIO of an IT department, hopefully you realize that this kind of behavior is always completely unacceptable. However, it is your responsibility to make sure that it never shows up in the first place. This means that you are going to have to make sure that everyone in your department gets trained on sexual harassment correctly.

The Damage That Harassment Can Cause

The recent wave of revelations about powerful men who were harassing the women who worked for them has revealed that this was never a secret. Instead, it was an open secret among their coworkers for years. What this means for the person with the CIO job is that we need to clearly communicate to our department so that if somebody sees something inappropriate, they will speak up. What’s most important is that they need to speak up no matter how powerful the person who is misbehaving might be.

It’s not like the companies where the sexual harassers are being discovered didn’t have sexual harassment training programs. However, it is becoming more and more clear that these programs just were not working the way that they were intended to work. Changes are being made to training programs. What may have once upon a time only been training that was giving to senior executives is not being given to everyone in the company. Additionally, the frequency of the training is being increased. People in the CIO position are trying to get the word out to the members of their department via memos and online blogs that they need to speak up if they witness any inappropriate behavior.

The harassment that has only recently come to light has very clearly shown how this type of behavior can easily ruin the lives of the women and men that are affected by it. CIOs also understand that there is a very real possibility that the reputation of the company may also be on the line. As with all such things in life, sexual harassment is not an easy thing to classify. One of the reasons that it can be so difficult to clearly identify is because in every IT department there may be a great deal of office romance going on. A recent survey revealed that 41% of the respondents had dated a coworker. CIOs need to move beyond just telling everyone what the federal definition of sexual harassment is. Instead, we need to now start to create a workplace culture of tolerance, acceptance, and civility. Our goal has to be to create an environment where everyone feels as though they can talk freely with each other.

The Power Of Effective Sexual Harassment Training

Most firms have had some sort of sexual harassment training as a part of their overall training program since the early 1990s. The material was added as a result of two Supreme Court rulings and the creation of federal guidelines on how to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Additionally, several states have passed laws that now require firms to offer their employees sexual harassment training. The training that firms have offered has not always good enough. Some training spent its time explaining the law just so that the company could avoid being sued. Training has to include how to make a more respectful culture and how to report things that an employee might witness.

Many firms thought that they didn’t have a sexual harassment problem because nobody was complaining. It turns out that this is not a good indicator that you don’t have a problem. People don’t speak up when they see abuse taking place because they assume that since a powerful person is doing it, the company approves of it. Additionally, the workers may fear personal repercussions if they do report an incident. CIOs need to be careful when dealing with sexual harassment scenarios. How a situation is interpreted may depend on how one of the parties feels about what is going on.

In order to improve the sexual harassment training that their staff is receiving, CIOs have to take additional steps. What CIOs need to realize is that at the firms that have had sexual harassment problems they have had an environment in which “complicit silence” allowed the sexual harassment problem to take root. What this means is that CIOs need to create opportunities for their employees to come together and have discussions about sexual harassment. These can be groups of between 15-20 employees of all levels who meet to have informal discussions.

What All Of This Means For You

As recent news reports have revealed, sexual harassment is alive and well and living in our workplaces. As your firm’s CIO you have the responsibility to make sure that sexual harassment is not a part of the IT department. What this means is that you are going to have to take steps to prevent it from taking root before it can grow and choke your department. This all starts with effective sexual harassment training.

The sexual harassment issues that have been showing up in the newspapers lately have revealed that sexual harassment was going on at these companies for a long time. It was an open secret and nobody spoke up. This is why CIOs have to tell their department to tell someone if they see any of this going on. Even at the companies that have been embroiled in sexual harassment issues, they all had sexual harassment training programs. However, clearly they were not working correctly. Sexual harassment can be a tricky thing to classify. In the office there may be a great deal of office romance going on. CIOs need to make sure that they create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to talk. Training has to include how to make a more respectful culture and how to report things that an employee might witness. Just because no employees are complaining about sexual harassment does not mean that it is not happening. CIOs need to realize that “complicit silence” allows sexual harassment to take root. By creating informal teams to talk about sexual harassment CIOs can get everyone to talk about this problem.

Sexual harassment is not going to go away overnight. However, CIOs who move proactively and create a work environment in which workers feel comfortable in speaking up when things happen will have found a way to prevent sexual harassment from spreading. Creating a work environment where everyone feels comfortable talking about what is going on is the key to creating a work environment that everyone wants to be a part of.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What steps should a CIO take if they discover sexual harassment is going on in their department?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As CIO, we are aware of the importance of information technology and all of the threats that our firms are facing on an almost daily basis. We spend a lot of our time (and our budgets) trying very hard to protect our networks and our applications. However, it turns out that perhaps one of the biggest threats that we may be facing has nothing to do with our networks and instead has everything to do with the people who work for our firm. This new threat has its own name: doxing.