Harassment, Bias and Swimming with Sharks

By Sharon Zezima
August 15, 2019

A few years ago in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to swim with dolphins. It was the chance of a lifetime, except for one thing: just a week earlier, there had been a deadly shark attack at the very same location. As someone who considers myself an expert in risk management, it was the ultimate gut check.

Over the years, I’ve honed my approach to risk management. From helping GoPro go public and launch a consumer drone product to taking the leap into the budding cannabis industry, I’ve become more and more comfortable taking informed, calculated risks. But I’ve also become more aware of the need to mitigate risks that don’t have a big upside, or detract from my ultimate goals or the company strategy. And I’ve also become facile at rooting out risks, since one must know a risk exists in order to mitigate it.  We must find the sharks before they find us.

One of the most important areas to mitigate risk is by addressing liability for workplace culture issues like harassment and bias. Right now, employees are making headlines protesting employer’s responses to harassment claims. While this is a reputational issue, it’s also a business problem. And what’s even more costly to companies is the high turnover that results from unhappy employees. Forty three percent of employees say they are looking for a new job, and corporate culture is the main reason. SHRM estimates that it costs 6-9 months of salary to replace an employee.

The good news is that so many companies now value diversity and inclusion.  And most of these companies understand, or should understand, that harassment and bias issues are often symptoms of underlying problems with the culture that can undermine even the best intentions around diversity and inclusion.  This means that, at the same time companies are making positive changes and creating programs to ensure the workplace culture is welcoming to a diverse workforce, they must also be monitoring for actions and behaviors that undermine those goals.

As someone who believes in tech’s ability to improve our world, I’m especially excited about how technology can help companies address culture issues proactively. That’s why I serve on the board of AllVoices, which is creating new digital solutions to empower employees to speak up about harassment, bias, and poor management in a safe, secure way. There are three main reasons embracing digital solutions offers significant benefits, and it’s exciting to see innovation in this crucial area.

We should encourage employees to speak up to uncover problems before they grow.

Too often, lawyers advise clients not to go looking for problems. When it comes to culture issues, smart companies aren’t trying to hide under a rock. Instead, they are seeking ongoing, proactive feedback, so that company leaders can become aware of issues well before they boil over.  Find the sharks before they find us.

Secure platforms lead to better information.

Ethics hotlines are a solution from the past. As someone who’s overseen a number of responses to these hotlines, it can be cumbersome, and sometimes impossible, to get enough information to move forward with an investigation. Our hands are tied because the technology doesn’t allow for a secure, two-way conversation. With solutions like AllVoices, employees have a way to communicate anonymously, and learn more about their options. And employers can easily communicate back and forth, to ask for more information.

Engaging digitally provides crucial documentation.

From a liability standpoint, the interactions between an employee who has voiced a concern, and the HR representative or legal counsel can be incredibly fraught. Failing to take an accusation seriously, or providing the employee with bad advice, can open up new areas of liability. By creating a digital trail that carefully documents the conversation between an employee and management, both employees and companies have better accountability, and companies are better positioned to defend against future claims.

So what does this have to do with swimming with sharks? As we become more sophisticated about balancing risks and rewards, it’s important to always keep our ultimate goals in mind. For me, that means providing advice so that all stakeholders are informed of the upside, and downside, of a risk, and contextualizing this conversation within our larger goals as a company. In the case of my vacation, I decided that the minimal chance of encountering a shark did not outweigh the potential benefits, and so I jumped in.  In the workplace, we need to find the sharks—the risks that threaten a great workplace culture—and mitigate them so that we all can swim with the dolphins.

Don’t get caught off guard by employee feedback. AllVoices can help.
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