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Handling Misconduct Allegations Against the C-Suite: How HR Can Prepare Ahead of Time

When high-level executives are accused of harassing others in their company, it can be tricky for HR to know how to handle the accusation—but it can help to plan ahead and choose the right type of investigator, two employment experts said Tuesday at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

"You will be tested" when accusations of any type—from sexual harassment to embezzlement—are made against those in the C-suite, said Dennis A. Davis, Ph.D., a psychologist who is Ogletree Deakins' national director of client training and an expert on sexual harassment and other workplace issues. "You will be tried by your executives. You have to make sure that they understand that you have the same expectations of them that you have of your lower-level employees."

Recent news stories have shed light on sexual harassment accusations against several high-profile leaders across industries and in Hollywood, politics and the media.

Recognize the Common Traits of a Harasser

Who at an organization is most likely to harass others?

Typically, it's someone who's in a powerful position and able to avoid consequences, said Davis, who spoke at a mega session titled "Corporate Misbehavior: How to Deal with Bad Behavior from the Boardroom." It's people who are impulsive and arrogant—meaning they don't think through consequences and they believe the rules don't apply to them. They tend to be isolated—having few peers or even no peers. And they are socially awkward or not good at reading social cues.

Davis recalled that one of his clients, an executive, said he was attracted to a woman at work and would hang around outside the company's gym locker room in hopes of bumping into her.

"Now think about this," Davis said. "Women are going in and out, and [he's] lurking outside, waiting for this one person to come out. Doesn't he get it? The door opens and women are walking around with towels around them. This is inappropriate behavior."

Davis said it shouldn't be difficult to recognize that many of those who display the traits he described tend to be people in executive positions.

For that reason, he said, don't ignore internal complaints or the results of workplace culture surveys. They can help you get in front of problems. "Be on the lookout for rumors involving … inappropriate conduct by your executives," he said. 

Planning Ahead

Handling accusations against a high-level executive requires planning—well before any accusations materialize, said the session's other speaker, Joseph L. Beachboard, managing director of Ogletree Deakins and a nationally recognized expert on employment law issues. 

That means:

Ensure that executives don't avoid harassment training because they're "too busy." If necessary, Davis said, break the training into 20-minute chunks.

Think about retaining an outside investigator who can come in quickly should allegations surface. Outside investigators are ideal, Beachboard said, for cases that involve very high-level employees or particularly serious or salacious details, or that have the potential to become public knowledge. An outside investigator, he said, can enhance the perception that the company took the allegations seriously and can counter any perception that the company tried to whitewash the probe should the accused be cleared.

Glen Kraemer has investigated several C-suite leaders on matters concerning sexual harassment. He acknowledged that using an outside investigator can be ideal.

"Even if the [internal] HR investigator does not fear retaliation, third parties will assume that [because an HR person likely answers to executives], that this is a material issue that could have affected the outcome" of an investigation, said Kraemer, a partner with Hirschfeld Kraemer in Santa Monica, Calif.

Insist on bystander intervention. "Empower the people in your organization so that when they see inappropriate, unethical behavior, they're comfortable calling it out," Davis said.

Educate all employees that the definition of "workplace" in many states is any place you are with people who are work colleagues—"whether a softball field, in a bar celebrating a birthday, even in [someone's] home," Davis said. "If someone engages in offensive conduct … [in such a setting], you've got a workplace harassment situation."

Consult with key players inside and outside the company who may become involved in a harassment complaint, such as IT, board members, the compliance department, legal staff and public relations experts. "If you are preparing your message while the news is hitting the media, you're going to make mistakes," Beachboard said. He recommends having someone skilled in crisis management at hand. "I tell you, they are worth their weight in gold."

Session Attendees Thinking Ahead

Katie Smith, SHRM-CP, is an HR generalist at Wright Tool Company, a tools distributor in Sterling Heights, Mich. She said she attended the session in hopes of improving "the culture of our organization and to be a strategic partner with the leaders of our organization." 

While she said she hasn't had to deal with corporate misbehavior at her company, she wants to be able to identify it should it happen and "to be able to work with the leaders of the organization and assist them for the better of the organization."

SHRM is working with the National Conference of State Legislatures to provide training to lawmakers and staff on workplace harassment and resolution. SHRM's CEO, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., also testified before the California Legislature on reforming harassment policies and the importance of healthy workplace culture.



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