Charting Paths to Ending Workplace Misconduct (Part One of Two)

Lauren Stiller Rikleen
Every workplace must create a safe and supportive environment.

Every workplace must create a safe and supportive environment.

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The past 18 months have seen a dizzying number of famous men publicly accused of sexual harassment that, in many cases, had been ignored for decades. The good news in all this bad news is that it has resulted in a much-needed focus on behaviors that should never be acceptable in the workplace.

For meaningful change to occur, however, there needs to be engaged leadership and a commitment to put in place a variety of policies and safeguards. Every workplace should be actively implementing measures to encourage victims and bystanders to come forward in a safe and supportive environment. But even as workplaces may be in the process of putting more comprehensive structural changes in place, there are opportunities for employees to help make a difference.

One key way this can happen is through the documentation of and bringing to light negative patterns of behavior. People in the workplace are often alert to challenging behaviors and those who are frequent perpetrators. An important step is making sure that information is collected and made available to those in a senior position who are willing to help navigate the firm’s internal process for addressing these issues.

Last year, I worked with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts on a Survey of Workplace Conduct and Behaviors in Law Firms, which looked at a variety of negative behaviors and misconduct in law firms. In one question, we asked whether respondents had been approached by others in the firm who sought to discuss their concerns about workplace behaviors that made them uncomfortable and, if yes, what types of behaviors were brought to their attention. Examples of behaviors described in the responses included:

  • Colleagues sharing examples of being sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or propositioned by partners in the firm (including incidents involving partners and summer associates)
  • Colleagues sharing examples of experiencing homophobia
  • Colleagues sharing negative comments made about women becoming pregnant and having children
  • Colleagues sharing stories with one another about which partners to avoid
  • Summer associates sharing examples of inappropriate behaviors they experienced

The sharing of information among colleagues, in many instances, seemed to be part of the workaround, as this response exemplified:

Associates talked among ourselves; “whisper network” regarding specific partners to avoid or be careful around. Was culture of large law firm life.

Another reported:

Associates would talk amongst themselves about which partners were the ones that were desirable to work for and which ones you wanted to avoid working for because of the poor treatment you would receive. It was known behavior in the firm from everyone else that had advanced through the partnership.

Another respondent described the importance of shared behaviors in an atmosphere where reporting was not an option:

All of the women in the office knew that certain departments were a minefield and we all tried to work around it. … When does the firm become responsible for its persistent problems in not properly addressing the behavior?

Some respondents indicated they found solace by commiserating with others in the firm. For example, a respondent stated that female associates who found themselves the object of inappropriate questions and prying by another lawyer formed their own support network:

We both decided to be a support system for each other, and we discussed ways to avoid being alone with that attorney.

Similar to these responses in the WBA survey, while researching and writing my upcoming book The Shield of Silence, How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, I was frequently struck by the extent to which internal communication networks serve to provide warnings about those who should be avoided because their behavior can be inappropriate or worse.

These networks can be critically important to protect younger employees from sexual harassment by senior colleagues with a reputation for predatory behavior.

In part two of this two-part article, I detail ways organizations can promote inclusion and help win the battle to stop workplace misconduct.

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Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, provides speaking, training, and consulting services on a variety of workplace culture issues. Her book The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, published by the American Bar Association, will be available on May 30, 2019.