Time to change the conversation

Just because we’re not hearing about sexual harassment on Bay Street doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

This year’s hot topic in ethics is sexual harassment in the workplace — ranging from lack of respect to misogynistic comments to assault. It is the matter of the moment not because of a sudden increase in harassment, but rather because a few key incidents have lit a fire in the media (social and traditional) and in office coffee rooms and living rooms across the country. We have been riveted by stories of harassment in the military, universities, science labs, restaurant kitchens, the police, media organizations and the Canadian Senate. Strangely, there hasn’t been an uptick of similar stories about harassment in the Canadian business community. Does that mean that Bay Street has learned about respect and equity and the value of diversity?

Excuses and more excuses

We have heard absurd excuses for the bad behaviour. Boys are apparently hardwired to force themselves on girls. But I think there is a more insidious assumption behind the excuses and the tolerance for harassment that is important to examine. It might help explain why the leaders of these organizations are reluctant to speak out.

I suspect that many of our leaders believe that “being nice” to women will undermine the tough, fighting culture needed to win. Will a tolerant military be able to fight wars? Will respectful police be able to deal with vicious criminals? Can diverse, cooperative teams produce cutting-edge news stories or Nobel Prize-winning science or great public policy? I fear that many leaders secretly think the answer is no. They worry that if they change the culture, they may become second rate.

When the assumption is set out in the open, it sounds absurd. Try saying this out loud: “Being allowed to harass women is necessary for a chef to cook brilliant meals.” The assumption is also demeaning to all men — it says they can’t differentiate between being driven to succeed and acting on their apparently uncontrollable base impulses. It implies that an aggressive macho environment is a necessary condition for success.

The fact that bad behaviour on Bay Street has not been in the news lately doesn’t mean that this assumption has disappeared in the executive suites across Canada. In fact, we all have some biases in this regard. We celebrate Steve Jobs’ boorish behaviour as integral to his greatness as the leader of Apple. Why can’t we just say that he was a great CEO except that he was obnoxious and disrespectful?

Success does not require obnoxious behaviour 

Treating your colleagues with respect doesn’t mean you can’t have tough discussions, give feedback about poor performance or argue about strategy. It’s not about being nice — it’s about valuing smart, creative and competitive colleagues regardless of their sex. But the implicit assumption that a respectful team won’t be a high-performance team persists, although it isn’t politically correct to say so.

Why does this assumption matter? Our leaders are focused, as they should be, on winning and on doing great things, and they worry about being mediocre. As a result of this assumption, they may be hesitant to push hard to create a culture that is as welcoming to women as it is to men, a culture that gives them the same chance to succeed. They excuse misogynist language as necessary, because it allows the boys who are working so hard to let off steam. They hesitate to confront a superstar whose behaviour is unacceptable. There are plenty of Jian Ghomeshis still working in the Bay Street towers.

Desmond Hague, CEO of US catering company Centerplate, was forced to resign when a video of him kicking his dog in an elevator went viral. Why would we tolerate vicious behaviour toward women if we find it unacceptable toward a pet?

So let’s call out this assumption when we see it. Let’s ask, “Are you saying that excusing his behaviour is key to our business success?” Maybe that will change the conversation.

About the Author

Karen Wensley


Karen Wensley, MBA, is a lecturer in professional ethics at the University of Waterloo and a retired partner of EY.

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