This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review on 30 November, 2017.
An extraordinary cultural shift is playing out in the media. Sexual harassment leads our news feeds and has done for months. More remarkable is that the alleged perpetrators are high profile, powerful men who at the height of their careers wielded immense influence across their domains.
Sexual harassment is nothing new. It will not surprise people to learn that those in powerful positions in the workplace attempted to use that power to obtain sex or sexual gratification.
The new element is that these often historical claims are now being aired and consequently bringing down the men involved as well as the organisations that tolerated or hid these behaviours, often over many years. The cavalcade effect has created a culture where it is now acceptable to air allegations against high profile leaders where once the claims were swept under the carpet.
There is nothing remarkable about a fear of speaking up against those at the top. The current media attention has changed that landscape and is likely to lead to more people feeling safe to air allegations where once they would have stayed silent.
The current cultural shift will absolutely impact our workplaces. Leaders need to be cognisant of the fact that historical allegations may be made against senior or high profile current or former employees, although most sexual harassment complaints are peer to peer and involve junior to mid-level employees.
Businesses that can stand proudly to condemn actions of the past and present a current zero tolerance culture are those that will survive these crises and protect current staff and reputations.
There are those that will complain and say the media attention will lead to puritanical, cautious workplaces where colleagues can only interact on distant terms. This is rubbish. Sexual harassment laws have been around for more than thirty years. Australians can and do interact every day in a familiar, collegiate and fun way. Workplace romance occurs all the time without resulting in sexual harassment. There is nothing complicated about understanding what is and is not considered sexual harassment at law. It is behaviour that is unwanted, unwelcome or uninvited, is of a sexual nature and a reasonable person would be intimidated, offended or humiliated by it.
If you have to question yourself as to whether or not something you are going to say or do would fall into this category, just don't do it. Close your mouth, put your hand in your pocket and walk away. Calling out behaviour which is quite obviously beyond this boundary will lead to a better, more inclusive workplace culture which will be the legacy of these recent remarkable tales.