#metoo: It is time for CEOs to lead the way

Women will believe they will get justice when they see leaders champion a harassment-free workplace. For that, a compliance mechanism alone is not enough. Leaders must initiate open conversations that define the norms for a safe workplace

K Ramkumar

[By rawpixel, under Creative Commons]

Where do I stand on the #metoo movement? I believe unequivocally that it is the spark that was needed for us to take sexual harassment at the workplace seriously. Will it be enough to achieve a harassment-free workplace? I have my reservations.


This menace has so far been hushed up. #metoo is bringing it into the open. But given its emotive nature—rightfully—it runs the risk of exaggerating the issue. It can even run out of steam when it injudiciously asserts that a woman’s word alone is sufficient proof. We know from psychology that all humans may misrepresent things under certain circumstances. So, I am uncomfortable with the assertion that rule of law does not apply to sexual harassment. We have accepted that dowry harassment has to go through the rigour of due process and rule of law. So too should sexual harassment at the workplace.

That said, we need to ask why women believe they will not get justice, that the rule of law will fail them. I believe that is because women and men do not see their CEOs, senior business leaders, and HR leaders champion a sexual harassment-free workplace. They hear and see these influential leaders go pink and blue talking about ethics and integrity. They see everything other than a harassment-free workplace being part of engagement and climate surveys. They see CEOs asking employees about the health of the business and customer satisfaction, but hardly ever about how safe the workplace is for women.

The truth is when something is the focus of conversations initiated by senior leaders, it often engenders confidence in employees. They believe that this matters to the leadership. However, when something is buried in policies and rules, and is not part of open conversations, it is seen as something the leadership is doing to be on the right side of the regulations—rather than something that’s integral to the organisation’s culture.

Workplaces will become safe only when the culture makes it possible. Compliance is about engaging when the norm is violated. Culture functions as the norm. Culture makes a certain behaviour the norm through peer approvals and sanctions. It shapes behaviour proactively and develops the organisation’s DNA. We know that shaping culture is a function of the leadership. That is why CEOs, business leaders, and HR leaders should be the visible torch bearers of shaping the culture for a harassment-free workplace. This will happen only when conversations about what behaviours constitute sexual harassment are everyday conversations within the organisation.

This does not mean we do not need a compliance mechanism. The two have to function hand in hand. One is not enough. When norm violations happen, how promptly and openly does the leadership respond to it? That will make these conversations credible. If the conversations are also not about the people who violated the norms and the punishment meted out to them, they will not be authentic and credible.

More importantly, employees will be watching how a Phaneesh Murthy moment or an RK Pachauri moment is handled by the leadership. When they see leaders who talk about ethics ad nauseam in public, dither, resorting to dubious arguments, both culture and compliance will be seen as an eye wash.

This is why women believe that due process and rule of law are likely to be used not to find the truth, but to make it difficult for them to call out harassment with their dignity intact. When the leadership fails a woman by misusing the due process and rule of law, it leaves her credibility and dignity in tatters. The last few decades are rife with even women leaders failing women who believe they were sexually harassed by misusing due process. Hence, the #metoo movement is making an aggressive proposition that we should implicitly trust a woman who complains about sexual harassment at the workplace.

I believe they are merely saying, when we cannot trust the application of due process even in the top organisations—some of which have been grandstanding on ethics for decades, and some for a hundred years—then we have no option but to name and shame. I am not justifying that.

If we want women to adhere to due process and rule of law, then leaders—CEOs—should lead the way for the next decade and personally drive the culture and compliance, and not leave it to others.

To start with, they should have open conversations with their own top leaders on conduct they approve and disapprove of. Have we heard of any CEO, man or woman, talk publicly about:

Why “boys clubs” are discriminating and hotbeds of misogynistic conversations?

Why a woman colleague should not be called into a hotel room for meetings?

Why employment interviews with women should not be held in hotel rooms?

Why lewd jokes in lunchrooms or sales conferences, even when women are not there, is not kosher?

Why men hugging women can be inappropriate and objectionable to some women?

Why putting an arm around a woman to pat her back or in photo sessions is inappropriate, no matter what the intention may be?

In every organisation, the grapevine talks about the Casanovas (read aggressors), especially the senior Casanovas. The culture test is whether men will protest about this person or abet their behaviour with their silence. Even more important is whether this Casanova will be told by the leaders that we know you are abusing your power, and we will take you out of the game. Where the leaders do not do this, they too are complicit by their silence. They will preside over a predatory culture even though they are not the predators. It does not make it any less worse.

My critics will say that this is taking the behaviour expectation too far. Not at all.

How rampant is sexual harassment at the workplace? It is very difficult to be certain. When we say 78% of women do not report it, does it mean 78% have been harassed? When we say 80% of women know of someone who has been harassed, does it mean 80% have been harassed? This is the problem when we do not track anything. We can come to perverse conclusions with numbers.

As someone who has worked for 35 years, my view is that most women who have worked would have at some stage of their careers experienced some kind of harassment or been made a pass at. However, this does not mean most men during their careers have made an inappropriate pass at some woman. So, we should place the issue in its right magnitude.

Predatory conduct is rare and limited to a handful of men. However, inappropriate passes could be more. How much more? Would it be 50% of men making inappropriate sexual passes at women? I doubt it. The incidence of sexual harassment is more likely to be in the mid-single digits for organisations in the formal sector. In the informal sector, it could be much more, even around 15%. We need to get a handle on this with some level of credibility. I know that activists will dispute this.

This is high enough to make workplaces toxic. You do not need every second man to be a harasser for us to take note of the issue and intervene. This is significant enough for CEOs to take the lead.

Unless the bar is set for that one conduct that any one woman may feel is inappropriate, that woman will not feel safe and comfortable in the workplace.

This cannot be achieved by POSH (short for Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2013) rules. This is possible only through a culture which is shaped through conversations of what behaviours are appropriate and what are inappropriate. More importantly, as I’ve said before, this has to be led by the most influential leaders in the organisation. This should also be backed by publicly declaring the cases where a norm violation has been punished through the application of the due process. It is only when both are done through thousands of conversations—over many years—will women trust their leaders and submit to the due process.

A home will be safe only when the elders exemplify the culture they expect of the next generation of family members. The same is true of workplaces. Workplaces will be safe from sexual harassment only when CEOs and influential leaders lead the way. It is time for the CEOs to take charge.

I am hopeful that conversations about sexual harassment will become less stressful and inhibiting for both men and women. It is only when this happens will we be able to call out potential harassers, much before they make the workplace toxic.

Leaders shape the narrative and mobilise thought, emotion and action. We have not seen enough of it yet, when it comes to shaping the narrative and behaviour around sexual harassment. All is not lost. I am hopeful that #metoo will have inspired some CEOs to step up and take personal charge to create a culture, and not just stop at compliance.

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About the author

K Ramkumar
K Ramkumar

Founder and CEO

Leadership Centre

K. Ramkumar is the founder and CEO of Leadership Centre, an institution dedicated to building world-class thought and practice in the domain of leadership consulting, research and development.

He is a retired executive director of ICICI Bank and retired president of ICICI Foundation. He has completed his Post Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management from Madras School of Social Work in 1984. He joined the Board of Directors with effect from February 1, 2009.

Prior to joining ICICI Bank in 2001, Ramkumar served companies such as Hindustan Aeronautics, Brookebond Lipton India Limited (now Hindustan Unilever Limited) and ICI India Ltd. His work in these companies has mainly been in the areas of Human Resources Management and Manufacturing.

While at ICICI Bank, he was passionately devoted to Leadership Development, Succession Management, building a supply chain for the Bank’s human resources requirements, leveraging technology to innovate, and driving operational excellence for world class service quality.

Institute for Finance, Banking & Insurance and ICICI Manipal Academy for Banking & Insurance were conceived and nurtured by him. The partnership Initiatives with SEBI – National Institute for securities management and with NIIT - the NIIT University, were also nurtured by him. He led the CSR project of ICICI Foundation on skilling youth and promoting livelihood. This is done under the ICICI Academy for Skills, which has 21 centers offering 13 skills to 25,000 youth per year.

He writes extensively on a range of topics on his blog www.theotherview.in. He invites you all to be active contributing members of this blog.

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