shutterstock_1054095059

The number of men in the fashion business accused of sexual harassment continues to multiply like a resilient disease. No industry or sector seems above the fray. Emotionally wrenching stories in the media from entertainment, sports, medicine, the law, academia, architecture and the not-for-profit sector have us questioning ways to manage, if not eradicate, sexual harassment within professional confines.

This is no dormant, undiagnosed virus that has been waiting to upend the behaviors of high-ranking men. If anything, the #MeToo movement is simply pulling open wide the curtains on preexisting foibles of men that most of us had assumed acted with more maturity and civility. Women have felt the effect of the virus forever, but now the movement to eradicate it is an aggressive one with momentum.

For the fashion industry, the past few months have been a wake-up call for its inevitable comeuppance. Guess chairman Paul Marciano has officially stepped down from his day-to-day duties at the brand he co-founded. Patrick Demarchelier is among 25 fashion industry professionals who have been accused of sexual misconduct resulting from an extensive investigation by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. As might now be expected, some have denied the allegations, referring to the claims as “ridiculous.” The stylist Karl Templer and Victoria’s Secret photographer Greg Kadel were also among those named. Photographers Terry Richardson, Bruce Weber were cited separately in a New York Times investigation.

And let us not forget Dov Charney of the late American Apparel. I counted at least six sexual harassment cases naming him personally that the firm settled prior to its demise.

Even as more revelations of abusive behavior are likely to be uncovered, chief executive officers and boards must establish far more effective approaches if they plan to deliver on a promise of zero tolerance. What can boards and ceo’s do to assure effective actions prevent this and — when it does happen — how can they respond with an impact that will leave their organizations stronger? I’ve been advising leaders in many industries to adopt these proactive approaches:

  1. Boards must assume a new mandate: stewards of the culture.

Over the past few years, many smart, high-functioning boards have assumed a role beyond risk mitigation, serving as strategic partner with the ceo. But now, they must also become the cultural steward. Ultimately, the board is responsible for maintaining a performance-driven, talent-focused and innovative culture. As industry disruption takes its toll on companies, culture — and leadership modeling the culture — will determine which firms survive massive macro changes. Amid this, boards must also understand that an obsessive focus on culture helps prevent aberrant behaviors. And while the CEO must be responsible for executing on the processes required to wrangle a culture into alignment, increasing numbers of boards now hold themselves ultimately accountable for assuring a healthy culture is developed.

To be clear: the board as cultural steward is not a question of risk management, although it results in a knock-on benefit. It’s about creating an environment that not only stops or stems sexual harassment, but provides a plethora of other payoffs when boards take on the mantle. Look deeply into many of the organizations where sexual harassment has run rampant — regardless of industry or sector — and you will find elements of a toxic culture. It’s not just correlation; it is causation.

  1. Stop giving rainmakers a pass.

Much as in any other industry, firms in fashion have key individuals who play an essential role in their organization’s success.

They bring inordinate talent and influence to bear and their work is believed to contribute to a disproportionate amount of the revenue, either directly or indirectly. In their own ways, like the photographers named earlier, they are exceptionally gifted, often ground-breaking in their approaches, and perhaps even personally charismatic. Out of fear of alienating these rainmakers, those in the c-suite too often seem blind to the ways rainmakers are given a free pass. They are often exempt from accountability to the formal rules, policies and codes of conduct required of everyone else. It remains an unspoken dynamic how their free-agent behavior makes them appear to have impenetrable armor, accountable to no one.

Take the dramatic example from the banking world, where the term was coined. Citibank’s former ceo, John Reed, made a daring move to rein in a dozen errant rainmakers, despite their power to bring hundred-million-dollar deals to the bank. The problem: Their behavior was abusive to anyone who worked with them. Reed gave them a stern warning and offered executive coaching.

Their behavior did not change, so he gave them a second warning. The rainmakers assumed that their value to the bank guaranteed their immunity, since nothing consequential had ever happened when they broke code of conduct rules before. Wrong. Reed fired them all. Are your rainmakers modeling the behavior you expect from everyone? If not, take strong action that calls them to account.

  1. Rethink the role of H.R.

Ceo’s must question the process by which those who are aggrieved seek safety and recourse. Too many h.r. departments have not, unfortunately, been able to provide fair and timely action on this issue. We seemed to have forgotten that when “human resources” became the personnel function’s new name, it also embraced a deeper commitment to represent the needs of employees, balancing an advocacy role as they finally became a c-suite partner. Many victims coming forward recently have voiced frustration with the ways h.r. aggravated their sense of victimization when they did not feel believed or saw no action was taken on their complaint. A study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.”

The #MeToo moment has illuminated how broken h.r. is as their leaders and staff have increasingly ignored, refused or inadequately addressed sexual harassment complaints. And this has led women in particular to experience loss of trust and belief in the role that ostensibly was established to protect them. Alternatives exist and are being implemented. The key to finding the best-fit solution is to first establish whether h.r.’s processes, reporting structure and level of power are adequate to deal with this lightning-rod issue. If not, consider truly independent and trustworthy external resources. But not the external counsel.

  1. Question how much power you’re giving to external counsel.

To be sure, sexual harassment is a legal risk issue for any organization, with profound potential implications. But having the attorneys march in to investigate complaints or to conduct audits does not lead to a robust, nuanced, long-term organizational solution.

My respect for colleagues in the legal profession runs deep. But when their work steps over the line to conduct organizational assessments, requiring the mapping of power, influence, communications and culture, the lens through which they look at these “soft” causal variables of bad behavior can be a limited one.

Alternatively, skilled professionals in the organization development field know how to build deep trust with staff and they can quickly assess culture and culpability. Often in stark contrast to an external legal team, OD specialists engage in far more solution-driven conversations with all parties to not only identify problem people, but also problem processes and dynamics. In these cases, their insights can reshape these dynamics when they have dual-reporting accountability to the ceo and the board, while still maintaining a close relationship with h.r.

  1. Find ways to put pressure on men to begin speaking out about the uncivil behaviors of other men.

When better codes of cultural conduct become normalized, the men’s club will dramatically reduce or eliminate protections of the aberrant abuser. The time is up for relying solely on women to protect their female colleagues. Men must call out other men. If they know of egregious behaviors and do not take action, then there must be painful consequences.

With these fresh approaches to responsibility and transparency in the culture, the fashion industry can not only become irreproachable in the public eye, but also a better and more empowering place to work. Let’s make 2018 the year to advance workplace equity, fairness and safety. Let’s stamp out the plague.

Mark Lipton is graduate professor of management at The New School in New York City and author of Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man (Voussoir Press, September 2017). For more than 40 years, he has been a trusted adviser to Fortune 500 corporations, think tanks, philanthropies, nonprofits and start-ups.

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus