When the Harasser is an Executive

David J. Biviano, Ph.D.
Workforce Diversity Services
1400 Hubbell Pl., Suite 812
Seattle, WA 98101

It happens too often. The complaint of sexual harassment is against an executive. The investigation substantiates the claim, resulting in a corrective action order for the accused. Most companies know that this problem will not be solved by simply sending the offender to a class of any length. The accused typically adopts a victim posture, marshalling all the defenses of rationalizing, minimizing, discounting, blaming and hostility towards his persecutors, including the complainant and the company officers. This executive will likely return from training having learned little about his (or her) own behavior, and still not assuming responsibility for their behavior.

This scenario is born out by the clients I have worked with who, months after the order, still insist they have been unfairly accused. They protest that their reputations and professional standing have been affected, and all because of a misunderstanding, or worse, a hyper-sensitive complainant. This is a description of a repeat offender - it will happen again. The company remains at risk, as do future targets of unreformed behavior.

One company put restrictions on the offending manager, disallowing him to hire or supervise female employees, pending evidence of rehabilitation. This is also problematic, placing the company at risk for gender discrimination in hiring in that department. This is an untenable situation, and if unresolved, requires the termination of the offender.

This executive is most often a valuable asset to the company in every other way - a long time employee, an expert in the field, possessing expertise that will hard to replace. What is the company to do?

Several companies have asked for a different approach to these highly placed liability risks. They request a one-to-one intensive intervention, with an assessment and report as to the likelihood to re-offend. I have found this approach to be wise and effective.

The elements that are critical to assuring rehabilitation are: listening to the offender until they are assured they have been heard; developing empathy in the offender for the experience of the complainant; tutorial in sexual harassment law, policy and procedure, including the responsibilities of managers and supervisors.

The critical element is the success of the empathy exercise. If the offender is able to transition from focusing on his/her own feelings and the impact of the case on themselves, to an authentic appreciation for the impact on the target, then they make a breakthrough to a new view of their behavior. The walk through the law and policies and procedures now takes on a whole new potential, where they can reflect on the ways in which their conduct was in fact a violation.

The assessment of rehabilitation and likelihood of re-offending is based on an essay assignment regarding "lessons learned". The executive is given a week to reflect and prepare this assignment. My experience is that this document is radically different from the posture expressed in the initial session, which was full of defensiveness and self-justification. There is now an expression of accountability for the behavior and its impact on the target and on the liability of the company. Follow-up coaching sessions are advised to assure the "lessons learned" take hold. It is unlikely that this person would ever be able to engage in similar behavior again. They typically have also gained some balance, moving from feeling like they are walking on eggshells, to distinguishing between friendly, social interactions and inappropriate behavior. Of course, it is also critical that the company has attended to the rehabilitation of the complainant, at whatever cost. This would be a just and fair resolution.

When the offender is an executive, there is a way to resolve the problem - one-to-one coaching and corrective action.