This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Mendoza Business Magazine.
After the astonishing cases of fraud at major companies such as Enron and Arthur Andersen came to light in the early 2000s, business schools were widely criticized for not providing a robust ethics education to business school students. We find ourselves under the microscope again, as the public has been regaled almost daily in recent months with stories of inappropriate sexual conduct at organizations as diverse as the Weinstein Co., Fidelity, NPR, Uber, Harrah’s and The Humane Society.
Laying responsibility for sexual harassment in organizations at the feet of business schools may seem unreasonable. After all, business disciplines are hardly the only ones funneling students into workplaces, and the allegations are coming in from all sectors.
However, scholars in my field of management do bear a particular responsibility here. We produce much of the research on sexual harassment and often counsel organizations on such issues. We are, thus, in a unique position to educate our students about this topic and to lead the dissemination of best practices in teaching sexual harassment to students across the university, regardless of discipline.
Yet, we are not realizing this potential. My recent conversations with management, ethics and business law professors — many of whom have devoted their careers to studying topics related to organizational equity — have revealed that most cover sexual harassment very little. Education is usually limited to very brief instruction on employment discrimination law.
What students need to know about sexual harassment is integral to a host of topics future managers need to learn, including organizational culture, human resources systems, leadership and self-management. If anything, establishing how these factors are linked to sexual harassment could better ground the concepts. Moreover, it may spark student interest. #MeToo has captured their attention.
Finally, organizations are now setting higher standards of accountability. Students’ career success is, more than ever, affected by their ability to navigate the complex rules regarding gender and sex in the workplace.
THREE KEY AREAS
There are three key areas beyond federal statutes in which I believe management teaching can address the many questions — and some misconceptions — that have arisen in our recent national conversation.
1. Defining Sexual Harassment
Many people are confused about what sexual harassment even entails. The legal definition of sexual harassment encompasses sex-related behavior that threatens an employee’s work status, hinders performance or creates a hostile work environment. This is true regardless of the victim’s gender. However, regardless of how legal experts see it, employees’ own perceptions of having been harassed are a more critical determinant of personal and organizational outcomes. Students need to examine multiple cases involving concerns over sexual misconduct in order to gain confidence that they can recognize not only egregious cases, but also navigate the gray areas in which norms are not well-established or consistently maintained.
Groping by one’s boss is an obvious violation. However, Emily Chang’s recent book Brotopia documents a widespread concern among female entrepreneurs about how accepting invitations to sex parties at the homes of Silicon Valley investors will affect their chances of being funded. This would not likely qualify as sexual harassment under the law, and one can debate whether issuing such invitations is coercive. Yet, it is clearly unwise to ignore the moral and career implications for students who might find themselves in that world.
2. Organizational Costs
Despite the emphasis on legal liability in textbooks, the probability of any given organization incurring substantial costs from sexual harassment grievances is fairly low. Substantial numbers of women and men report having experienced sexually harassing behaviors, but few file complaints. In addition, only about one-fourth of charges filed federally are decided in favor of the charging party, and monetary settlements tend to be small.
Clearly, there are public relations costs, if not legal costs, when victims do come forward. But it may be the behaviors that are not reported or disciplined that impose greater costs on organizations. Ample research shows that workplace mistreatment in general — and sexual harassment in particular — compromise the well-being and productivity of both victims and their co-workers. Given the potential costs, students should recognize that managers have a fiduciary duty to eliminate harassment.
3. Leadership, Culture and Policy
Students should become versed in the policies and processes known to prevent sexual harassment and protect employees and organizations from its impacts. Not surprisingly, leadership is critical. It begins with upper-level managers strongly signaling their commitment to an inclusive culture. Other measures include training, safe reporting mechanisms, and fair and methodical procedures for investigating and handling reports.
It’s simple enough to know what knowledge to convey to students about sexual harassment. However, I fear class conversations about this touchy subject may go terribly wrong. Sex is usually a topic to be avoided in polite company. It is also politically charged. Although people across the political spectrum condemn sexual misconduct, there is widespread disagreement about the scope of the problem and desirable solutions. And despite the fact that victims of harassment can be of any gender, it’s largely perceived as a women’s issue.
As a female professor deeply familiar with and outspoken about the substantial evidence of gender bias in the workplace, I’m concerned about being perceived as hostile to men, an apprehension that other female professors have shared with me.
Personal experiences and research lend credence to our concerns. There is empirical evidence that people tend to feel hostility toward white women, as well as male and female racial minorities, who advocate for diversity. Furthermore, there are ubiquitous accusations that academics seek to politically indoctrinate students. And, on a daily basis, women who speak out about sexual harassment are trolled and threatened.
Such extreme scenarios are unlikely. But the risks, even simply in the form of reputational damage and slight decrements in student evaluations, are enough to give me pause. It is akin, I imagine, to reports of growing worries among men that working closely with women places them in danger of being accused of sexual misconduct.
We are all on shaky ground here. This is a conversation we’re not used to having, a problem that has festered and, now, exploded.
When I’m uncertain about raising morally tinged management issues, one thing I do is remind myself of Notre Dame’s mission to “cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many” and “to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” The mission statement also counsels us to achieve this aim by fostering inquiry, an ability that I routinely emphasize in my classroom.
I do bring a moral perspective to my teaching, which I believe is consonant with the mission of Mendoza. However, I am not fond of arguing politics, and ample research shows that changing attitudes this way is a fool’s errand. Moreover, there is at least a kernel of value in most people’s perspectives. We benefit from and amplify that value when we inquire respectfully into our own and other’s thinking.
In doing so, we can sharpen our ability to surface assumptions, to assess the basis of our beliefs and to gather quality evidence. In doing so, we gain humility. We are unafraid to relentlessly question ourselves. I routinely teach these critical thinking skills and will, as always, call them to the fore when teaching about sexual harassment.
I hope that both male and female professors will make it routine to talk about sexual harassment and begin revising syllabi and creating new courses to address the issue. In this way, via the knowledge our students take with them into organizations, Mendoza and other business schools may help to shape a climate of respect for human dignity and, more broadly, increase our society’s capacity to hold constructive conversations about the issues of our day.