Building a culture of accountable allies

Philippe Weiss
Philippe Weiss

The long-smoldering flames of sexual harassment in the workplace have recently mushroomed into a full-fledged media and legal whirlwind. Near-daily headlines of top-down misconduct and harassment have clearly raised significant concerns among executives and compliance leaders, including throughout the world of media.

From the #MeToo campaign of social media to long-lasting digital evidence of wrongdoing, damning allegations and publicity now spread at lightning speed—often engulfing media industry icons and leaders who find themselves facing intense scrutiny by their own reporters, readers, listeners and viewers.

In this fraught environment, the longstanding core tenets of journalism are worth recalling—as they can serve to guide news organizations taking both proactive and responsive steps. These tenets of our field include:

  • Accuracy

  • Fairness

  • Impartiality

  • Independence

  • Humanity

  • and Accountability

In assessing our own environments, in applying our policies as well as, where needed, in conducting internal investigations, we already know the critical legal and reputational value of accuracy, fairness and impartiality. As organizations of conscience, we also demonstrate appropriate independence and humanity when addressing employee concerns.

Above all, in today’s fraught climate and with a microscope on all media outlets, accountability—in particular accountability for respect at and between all levels of employees—has become paramount.

What is needed now: A culture of accountable actors and allies for respect

Forward-thinking media organizations should leverage this moment to direct resources and better foster a culture where people can and will speak up for one another. 

Behavioral and cultural change in any organization is often the result of forces both external—tightening laws—as well as internal—the drum beat of positive peer pressure from colleagues. It is about individuals—at all levels—not only seeing the risks and result of inappropriate and degrading conduct, but collectively understanding the lines between disrespect and dignity. 

This requires helping people build consensus about when these lines are crossed, and realizing how easy it is to be an Accountable Ally to others by safely pushing back at those critical moments.

Consider implementing these Accountable Action Items:

Encourage and simplifying internal reporting. Use a variety of visual, virtual and verbal tools to do so.

Be ready to answer the tough questions from your own employees—particularly those who are reporters and editors.

Provide skills and tools to address “gateway conduct,” such as leaders dressing down subordinates—which many have seen devolving into more egregious behavior over time.

Eschew “check the box” attempts at communicating standards and training that have little to no impact. Instead, champion live, fully interactive training—particularly of all supervisors. Best of all: train all employee with programs that build a consensus.
Committ to highly interactive, practical training programs and tools that empower and turn everyone into an Accountable Ally, by equipping them to:

  • Spot a colleague’s discomfort;

  • Support colleagues, using a step up/speak-up model;

  • Employ extraction strategies;

  • Know when and how to call-in reinforcements

Go to the script: Accountable Ally language/scripts:

Effective intervention language/scripts provided to “Accountable Allies” often include phraseology that is targeted to the specific organization and environment.  This is all about surmounting barriers of unease and reluctance to appropriately, safely and collectively “check” others who may be starting to cross a line of conduct/norms—including peers at the C-Suite level.

That is why even the simplest, most user-friendly scripts can prove surprisingly effective, when built into a larger and cohesive culture strategy.

To combat the conflagration of workplace sexual harassment, Accountable Actors and Allies should be equipped with practical tools for the sake of both dignity and safety. Organizations must help employees at all levels to find a voice so that they can react and respond quickly to disrespect on behalf of others.

Attorney Philippe Weiss is managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a subsidiary of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP that provides high impact compliance communications and training solutions. His team of attorneys work with corporate executive teams and in-house legal/HR leaders to develop core value statements, compliance plans, media strategies and training initiatives