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Is sexual harrassment by men rife in corporate Australia?

The recent resignation of David Jones CEO Mark McInnes over sexual harassment claims has brought the subject back into the spotlight. But is the sexual harassment of women by men really a big problem in Australian workplaces? Margot Cairnes certainly thinks so.

Sexual Harrassment from the CEOWhen a managing director leaves a company quickly because of claims of sexual harassment we have to stop and think. Is this a once off? What is the truth behind the public relations statements? How, in this day and age, can we still be facing a situation where male leaders are abusing their power to claim ancient sexual rights?

In feudal times, the lord of the manor held first night privileges. This meant that on the marriage night of any of his serfs, he had the right to bed the new wife before her husband did. This accepted tradition that men in power can have their way with those dependant on them is apparently still alive and well in corporate Australia.

One PR executive remarked to me: “Well you have to expect it in a large retail house – all those models and beautiful young girls. It’s like being a child in a candy shop. What’s surprising?” He went on to say: “Is that she wasn’t just paid out? That’s what usually happens.” Hmm!

So let’s not ask the rights and wrongs of this situation but whether or not it is good for business. What kind of a culture exists in any company where it is expected that male executives will have their pick of the beautiful young females? I’m not talking office romance – which 47 percent of people in a recent US survey admit to having at some stage of their career. I am talking about the use of power by senior male executives to gain sexual rights over their staff.

Let’s for the sake of argument look at a retail environment, similar to David Jones, where the majority of employees are women. What message does it send to women when their leaders are picking off the young and beautiful for sexual favours? Does it say we value your contribution as a human being? What about the aging but experienced and clever female manager? What message does she receive about the value of her ideas and input? No longer in the category of eye candy of a trophy for male executives, does she feel honoured, valued and important?

[Next: Do staff feel safe?]

What we know is that if we want our staff to operate optimally, they need to feel respected as human beings, they need to know their ideas are valued, they need to feel that fairness and respect is the culture of the organisation. When staff feel safe and valued organisations make more money for their shareholders.

So it is the duty of the board to ensure that cultures operate in organisations that honour the contribution that their staff bring to the business. This is markedly different to the contribution that some staff members might bring to the ego and sexual needs of executives.

So why would any board tolerate an executive behaving in sexually inappropriate ways? Perhaps male board members themselves used sexual favours as one of the perks of the job? Perhaps a blokey culture exists at board level encouraging a ‘wink-wink-say-no-more’ approach to any executive indiscretion? Perhaps it is even a source of humour amongst board members?

I am not saying this is the case in any particular organisation but one has to ask – how can we in the 21st century hear of executives leaving under a cloud of sexual impropriety or women being paid off for keeping quiet after sexual misadventure? Organisations that operate in a heavily hierarchical way where executives are free to engage in ‘first night privilege’ style behaviour are simply bad businesses.

We know from research on the brain that the brain only functions when the information received feels safe, familiar and authentic. This is not a conscious thing but rather a nanosecond unconscious reflex. Information from the environment is received into the thalamus which decides the safety and authenticity of the situation. If the thalamus response is that the situation is unsafe or inauthentic, the message is sent down into the reptilian brain. This part of the brain only has three responses – flight, fight or freeze. So if on an unconscious level people feel unsafe or they are receiving inauthentic or grossly unfamiliar responses, they go into defence – which usually means they emotionally and intellectually leave the situation, they fight or freeze (and therefore contract) their intellect and capacity to relate.

If on the other hand the thalamus perceives that a situation is safe, familiar and authentic, information is channelled up into the limbic system (the part of the brain that governs our capacity to relate) and the neo-cortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for executive reasoning – or good logical thought). When the limbic systems and the neo-cortex are functioning in harmony, we have what is called limbic resonance, which means that we are capable of walking our talk, thinking logically and relating in sync with our strategic goals.

[Next: The reptilian brain]

Organisations where women are targets for the sexual proclivity of male executives are environments in which we can expect staff to be operating most of the time from their reptilian brain. While the prowling of sexual predators may be the norm and therefore familiar in many organisations, this will not help the brain of employees (particularly female employees) to function. While the ego and hedonism of senior male executives may be served, the strategic functioning of the organisation isn’t. While directors might smile at the “naughty boy behaviour” of a senior executive – perhaps fondly remembering their own youths – as the agents of shareholders, such a response is totally inappropriate. For employees to think and relate in a strategically appropriate way with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders, safety and authenticity need to predominate. It is the responsibility of the board and senior executives to ensure that this is the case.

While sexual misbehaviour by executives tends to be bought off, covered up and obscured from the public view of shareholders, I would suggest that we need to be asking ourselves the question – is it alright that the strategic functioning of an organisation (and therefore the return to shareholders) is put at risk by the need of the boys’ club to protect age old privileges and its own?

We need also to ask whether it is ethical for any organisation to support (even covertly) a culture of sexually predatory behaviour?

So how to change it? The first step is education. We need to ensure that directors and executives know that there is a strategic cost to their ‘boys own adventures’ with junior staff. Not just to the individual young women involved but to the culture as a whole. People notice when an executive is abusing his rights. They may not notice consciously but their thalamus notices and reacts accordingly.

Shareholders too need to know this. It is simply bad business to have a culture of harassment and inappropriate executive privilege. Shareholders need to be holding boards and senior executives accountable. Perhaps we need a system of shareholder audit of staff to get the real story about executive behaviour and the underbelly of organisational culture, since the culture and its impact on the thinking and relating capacity of staff could be a strategic make and break for any organisation. And just because an organisation is doing okay doesn’t mean that the culture is alright. It just means that it as good as or slightly better than the competition. So if a culture of sexual favours is industry wide, we need to be looking more closely so that shareholders are not being ripped off by the need of some male executives to get their rocks off with people other than their girlfriends or wives.

–Margot Cairnes is founder and chairman of Zaffyre International, a strategic leadership and corporate transformation consultancy that helps leaders and organisations envisage and achieve unprecedented levels of growth and success. She is the author of five books including Boardrooms that Work – A Guide to Board Dynamics; Staying Sane in a Changing World; Approaching the Corporate Heart; Reaching for the Stars and Peaceful Chaos.