Viewpoint: Confront Sexual Harassment Through a Culture of Mentoring

By Annemarie Spadafore June 14, 2018
Viewpoint: Confront Sexual Harassment Through a Culture of Mentoring

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with the Association for Talent Development (ATD) to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

Leaders and human resources professionals are experiencing an unprecedented need to confront sexual harassment in the workplace. What started with dramatic allegations related to a powerful Hollywood mogul has evolved into a whiplash-inducing parade of headlines regarding one imposing man after another. Each of these men—and certainly there are more to come—has been accused of wielding power and influence to assault, harass or otherwise inappropriately engage with women and men, often under the guise of helping to advance their victims' careers.

We have long since codified anti-harassment language in employee handbooks. We may now be entering into new territory where people will no longer "look the other way" and where sexual harassment will be regarded as truly unacceptable in practice as well as policy. While this is undeniably a good thing, new parameters for how men and women engage with one another in the workplace could unnecessarily damage both genders' willingness to participate in mentoring, coaching and networking activities that are crucial for preparing more junior leaders for success in their careers. This is particularly salient given that many of these assaulters and abusers used the possibility of career and professional development as an effective ruse to entice victims.

Because mentoring, coaching and networking are so crucial to professional development at all staff levels, it is vital that HR managers don't overreact in a noble attempt to protect the company. Restrictions or new rules and policies regarding travel, alcohol or one-on-one interactions could foster distrust, suspicion and disengagement. Interactions between men and women at all levels must be encouraged and fostered. A greater emphasis on commitment to advancing junior men and (especially) women is an absolutely fantastic way to begin repairing the tatters of workplace culture and establishing a healthy environment where assault, harassment and other negative engagement between genders are not just intolerable but are—in no uncertain terms—not the way things are done "around here."

What Can Be Done?

Encourage mentoring and career development conversations

HR managers and company leadership must continue encouraging mentoring, coaching and both formal and informal career development conversations. All staff will benefit from a redoubled commitment to providing excellent career development and networking resources. Because organizations have historically underperformed in providing advancement opportunities for women, particularly at more senior levels, a greater commitment to advancing women's careers through increased access to these professional development resources will trigger a meaningful cultural shift within your business or organization.

These efforts will also deliver a loud and clear message: We value women and junior staff within our organizations and take their career development seriously. Individuals who do not take this priority seriously will be marginalized. As a result, the organizational culture will move toward greater inclusion. As a pleasant side effect, intolerance for bad behavior will increase.

By sending this message, HR and organizational leadership will remove some of the power asymmetries that contribute to the dynamics in which harassment, assault and other bad behavior fester. Women and more junior staff also will receive the message that they have options with regard to their professional development. If a particular person or situation makes them uncomfortable, they won't have to make the difficult choice of sacrificing their career development (or even leaving their organization completely) in the name of safety.

Mentor and Network in Groups

Similarly, organizations may encourage or put in place formal mentorship and coaching programs that enable mentors and recipients to receive advice in groups. These groups may be composed of one mentor or coach and multiple mentees—or possibly two mentors and one mentee. Regardless of the setup, this arrangement will prevent the recipients of career and professional development advice from feeling they must always engage with their mentors in a private, one-on-one conversation.

Further, to avoid recipients from feeling awkward (or possibly putting their careers in jeopardy) by having to be proactive in requesting group rather than one-on-one mentorship, organizations may wish to design mentorship programs that include both options, enabling individuals to opt in or out of either option with no questions asked.

Engage Outside Professionals

Another excellent option for HR and leadership is to contract with outside professionals to provide coaching and other professional development. Organizations that use external professional development resources remove the likelihood that professional development assistance may be wielded as a power advantage with a negative outcome. By definition, external resources are outside the organizational chain of command and power structure. While outside coaches still have influence, their behavior will generally be scrutinized and reviewed far more than that of an informal internal mentor.

External coaches and professional development practitioners—particularly those with certifications—take oaths to engage in ethical behavior, and their continued membership in good standing in professional groups depends on their executing good judgment and never taking advantage of clients. As a result, external practitioners are likely to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior than an internal mentor or coach. Further, external resources work at the pleasure and to the specifications of internal decision makers via the contracting process.

The use of external coaches and professional development resources also send a clear message that the contributions of junior and up-and-coming staff are valued. Staff won't have to feel solely reliant on the goodwill of powerful senior men to achieve career success, ending an outdated—and damaging—precedent that is too often abused.

Victims of assault and harassment have reported that their powerful aggressors would lure them to after-work drinks or dinners to have important career discussions. Banning such interactions seems a bit puritan and unreasonable and is an overly simplistic, knee-jerk response to a crisis. In addition, such a policy likely would have disastrous effects on the careers of more junior staff because it would send a chill across the organization. Innocent senior leaders who have the desire, maturity and capability to be excellent mentors may be too afraid to step up in an environment so fraught with suspicion and a lack of trust.

Rather than banning these interactions, bring them into the light by codifying within company policy and company culture dedicated time within every workweek for mentoring and professional development conversations. Organizations may execute this suggestion based on their own identified needs and capacity, but a starting point may be (for example) designating every Tuesday from 4 to 5 p.m. as "mentor time."

By setting time aside for mentoring within the workweek (or month), organizations remove the unsettling and coercive subtext of having to hold mentoring, coaching and professional development conversations and interactions outside regular company time. Interactions over drinks or dinner interactions become unnecessary and redundant. Further, as with all of these suggestions, this shift communicates precisely how important professional development is within the organization.

Encourage Intragender Mentoring

Throughout this article, I've taken great care to avoid the unreasonable, ridiculous and insulting assumption that all men are dangerous in the workplace, which couldn't be further from the truth. I also do not want to cultivate or contribute to stereotypes that place the onus on the victims to avoid placing themselves in situations where they may encounter an aggressor or feel anything less than safe. Not only are those stereotypes and suggestions unhelpful and insulting, they are also unrealistic. Powerful men can wield their influence responsibly; indeed, they must. Most of the time, they do. To suggest otherwise would be unfair and not in line with reality.

Therefore, my final suggestion is not posed to advance archaic expectations or unhelpful assumptions regarding the behavior of women or men. Rather, it is a distinctly future-oriented suggestion: Let's actively cultivate mentoring and coaching for women by women (and for men by men, although that has been occurring with relatively little friction since the dawn of the modern workplace).

This suggestion is future-oriented because it requires your organization to already have enough senior women to serve as effective mentors, coaches and networking contacts who may effectively guide more junior and vulnerable staff through their professional development journeys. You must ask yourself: Do we have women who are senior enough to serve as valid mentors for junior staff? An answer other than a resounding yes raises another crucial question: Why not? And also: What are you going to do about it?

Every organization has its own unique culture, and the individuals at the top have an outsize role in developing and maintaining this culture. It is well documented that granting senior opportunities for women concomitantly removes barriers for women (and for men) throughout the organization.

An organization without senior women is indeed a "boys club"—and this fact will shape its culture in profound, and possibly extremely damaging ways. What we've witnessed is a wake-up call: We cannot continue to run our organizations as places where valued staff become victims and even the most innocent interactions may be cause for suspicion.

Organizations must provide effective mentoring, coaching and other professional development opportunities now more than ever to ensure that this painful moment in history is indeed an actual shift in our culture. These suggestions provide a safeguard toward executing these programs in a way that helps both women and men engage more effectively in the workplace, while laying a solid foundation to ensure that these damaging power asymmetries between genders in the workplace are solidly relegated to the past.

Annemarie Spadafore is an ICF-certified executive coach, facilitator and business consultant based in Arlington, Va., who specializes in illuminating individual and team blind spots and collaborating with clients to co-design futures where they will thrive. Learn more at

This article is excerpted from with permission from ATD. ©2018 ATD. All rights reserved.


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