Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Donald Trump. It’s safe to say that sexual harassment is in the national spotlight currently, and rightfully so. It’s about time these issues were brought to light, and the perpetrators brought to justice. With increasing media attention, though, also comes increased scrutiny within organizations. How can business leaders correct problematic behaviors within their organization before an actual incident of harassment occurs?
It’s impossible to predict the future, and it can be tricky to identify an issue before a complaint has been made – at which point, the damage has already been done and the company is at risk. However, there are certain traits that are common in sexual harassers – traits that are also generally associated with leadership positions. While there are a number of warning signs that an employee’s behavior may become problematic, the top identifying traits include:
- High self-confidence and impulsiveness
- Lack of awareness and a disconnect with reality
- High self-serving and risky tendencies
Of course, business leaders should absolutely possess high self-confidence in order to instill confidence in their staff and/or clients. However, like Christmas cookies, too much of a good thing can be problematic. Individuals who are self-confident to an extreme also often lack the ability (or desire) to recognize their own flaws, and may be likely to engage in impulsive behaviors – such as sexually pursuing an employee. This can also translate to an inability to accept rejection. To the offender, if they possess extremely high self-confidence, they may view that rejection as if the employee was simply playing hard-to-get, and may actually be encouraged to pursue the ‘chase.’
This disconnect with reality is another trait that’s common among sexual predators. Most individuals possess at least a reasonable level of awareness, and even if they are attracted to a colleague, are able to control and inhibit those feelings – and any related behaviors. However, leaders who possess both high self-confidence and low awareness might believe that they’re a ‘catch,’ and that the object of their affection would be lucky to even be associated with them. Arrogance is annoying, but it’s also dangerous when a perpetrator lacks awareness to recognize indicators that their advances are unwanted.
It’s hard to convince powerful people that they’re wrong. Successful leaders who have built an empire through hard work, intuition, and business savvy sometimes feel that they can do no wrong. Because of this, leaders may lack the ability to understand others’ points of view, especially when those viewpoints contradict their own. When sexual advances are rejected, for example, it can create a cognitive dissonance that may actually encourage the individual to continue to pursue the victim until the desired ‘result’ is achieved – even if it means hurting that person in the process. This self-serving, risky behavior is typical among predators, as they’re comfortable hurting others to get what they want.
Of course, not all individuals who possess these traits will commit an act of harassment – in fact, most will not. However, being able to recognize the warning signs is critical to becoming proactive about managing this issue on an enterprise-wide level.
As a first step, employees’ behaviors should first be measured – either through effective interviewing techniques or comprehensive personality assessments. Based on the results, individuals who possess the traits outlined above should be monitored and counseled as needed. Although the goal is to correct unwanted traits before harmful behaviors occur, there are some early behavioral warning signs that an individual may commit sexual harassment:
- Dominant and controlling behaviors, particularly with subordinates, and a negative response to authority/supervision.
- Boundary violations, or individuals who are comfortable ‘pushing the envelope’ on sensitive topics.
- Grooming behaviors, which can start subtly with friendly compliments, but escalate over time with a goal of bringing the victim closer. To an outsider, this might look like a boss who has a ‘special’ relationship with a particular employee, with the relationship intensifying over time.
There is no sure-fire way to identify a sexual harasser before an act has been committed; this isn’t Minority Report. However, organizations have a responsibility to understand the characteristics, behaviors, and warning signs that often lead to harassment. Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for their staff, and providing a workplace free of unwanted sexual advances is part of that obligation. Frankly, organizations that don’t take proactive steps to protect their employees – especially given the current spotlight on this issue – deserve whatever charges (and the ensuing litigation) they may end up facing.