Handling Misconduct Allegations Against the C-Suite
When high-level executives are accused of harassing others in their company, it can be tricky for HR and LP to know how to handle the accusation—but it can help to plan ahead and choose the right type of investigator.
"You will be tested" when accusations of any type—from sexual harassment to embezzlement—are made against those in the C-suite. "You will be tried by your executives. You have to make sure that they understand that you have the same expectations of them that you have of your lower-level employees."
Recognize the Common Traits of a Harasser
Typically, it's someone who's in a powerful position and able to avoid consequences, It's people who are impulsive and arrogant—meaning they don't think through consequences and they believe the rules don't apply to them. They tend to be isolated—having few peers or even no peers. And they are socially awkward or not good at reading social cues.
It shouldn't be difficult to recognize that many of those who display the traits he described tend to be people in executive positions.
For that reason, he said, don't ignore internal complaints or the results of workplace culture surveys. They can help you get in front of problems. "Be on the lookout for rumors involving … inappropriate conduct by your executives."
Handling accusations against a high-level executive requires planning—well before any accusations materialize. That means:
Ensure that executives don't avoid harassment training because they're "too busy." If necessary break the training into 20-minute chunks.
Think about retaining an outside investigator who can come in quickly should allegations surface. Outside investigators are ideal, Beachboard said, for cases that involve very high-level employees or particularly serious or salacious details, or that have the potential to become public knowledge. An outside investigator, he said, can enhance the perception that the company took the allegations seriously and can counter any perception that the company tried to whitewash the probe should the accused be cleared.
"Even if the [internal] HR or LP investigator does not fear retaliation, third parties will assume that [because an HR or LP person likely answers to executives], that this is a material issue that could have affected the outcome" of an investigation.
Insist on bystander intervention. "Empower the people in your organization so that when they see inappropriate, unethical behavior, they're comfortable calling it out,"
Educate all employees that the definition of "workplace" in many states is any place you are with people who are work colleagues—"whether a softball field, in a bar celebrating a birthday, even in [someone's] home," Davis said. "If someone engages in offensive conduct … [in such a setting], you've got a workplace harassment situation."
Consult with key players inside and outside the company who may become involved in a harassment complaint, such as IT, board members, the compliance department, legal staff and public relations experts. "If you are preparing your message while the news is hitting the media, you're going to make mistakes," Beachboard said. He recommends having someone skilled in crisis management at hand. "I tell you, they are worth their weight in gold." shrm.org