Recently, I was asked if I thought inappropriate conduct or sexual harassment is less likely to occur in employee-owned companies. The question is a great one and my answer is theoretically yes.
[Jennifer Briggs has worked for more than two decades in human resources, organizational development, and executive leadership—including 12 years in the beer industry. She currently serves as an educator and advisor to companies who want to lead and define value in a more holistic manner.]
Democratically managed, employee-owned companies tend to have stronger responsibility cultures. The employee shareholders of the company care not only about what a company accomplishes, but how it does so. If the company is democratically managed with well-mannered leaders focusing on servant leadership, the employee-stockholders should feel like they can approach leadership. This style makes reporting of issues easier and more meaningful. However, responsibility cultures require an exceptional level of leadership, strategic integration, and daily intentional execution. Building cultures like these require significant commitment.
Autocratic cultures with centralized power and control tend to be less people empowered and often have chain-of-command structures of communication. When people feel like they must run a complaint up a chain it lessens the likelihood of it happening. This is even less likely to happen if the person or people at the top of the chain perpetuate a bottom-line only mindset. One employee owner I spoke to recently referred to this as the leader’s manners. Are they open or controlling? Are they autocratic and domineering? These refer to structures and beliefs, but this person highlights that it also has to do with one’s manners of interacting with others. Will the leader be parental and judgmental? Will they be controlling and dictating? Will they be responsibly centered and thoughtful?
I think the employee ownership connection to less inappropriate workplace conduct theory can be valid, but there are a lot of dots to connect to make it happen. I believe a direct example of companies with a higher sensitivity to identifying inappropriate conduct are companies with women in key, influential leadership positions. When I think of real experiences I have had, there was a direct line of sight between inappropriate conduct sensitivity and a high ratio of women in the leadership positions. Women did feel more comfortable going to other women to talk about sensitive issues. Also, many of my male leadership peers had a very honoring attitude toward the women they worked with. In one situation, the male leader said, “I just can’t allow this to happen … what if it was you, my daughter, or my wife?” In another situation, a top male leader turned over a proposal for advertising that promoted the objectification of women citing the embarrassment he felt for the women in the room. Presence can be powerful.
Our norms of how we treat each other are evolving related to inappropriate workplace conduct. This is good. However, there is a next step for all companies—we need to make a commitment to healthy corporate cultures. There must be a strong sense of responsible togetherness. As one person mentioned, to have the reporting responsibility lie squarely on the victim’s shoulders falls short of a responsibility culture. We all need to be responsible for looking out for the corporate community welfare. We all also need to take the next steps to help heal systemic tacit approval of certain behaviors.
There is not a simple solution but there are systemic advancements that can ignite change:
- More democratic management styles in our leaders promoting just treatment of employees
- More servant leader manners that focus not only on the growth and profitability of the company, but the approach to achieving it
- Higher ratio of women on leadership teams and boards
- The development of responsibly-centric cultures with a focus on building a common unity