Contractors need to disclose harassment claims and settlements

Public disclosure of sexual harassment claims and settlements will make government contractors more accountable and help encourage better policies and ultimately a healthier workplace environment.

I have struggled with many emotions with all the news about sexual harassment in recent months.

As a male, a husband, a father and a son, it has been embarrassing to see how widespread and seemingly pervasive this behavior has been. I know in my teens and twenties I didn’t always act appropriately. But nothing -- I think -- that rises to the level of what we’ve seen in the news.

I write “I think” because as I’ve followed the news, I think it is obvious that many men are clueless. We often don’t know how our actions are perceived or received.

Men in power especially don’t realize how that position of power is perceived. The recipients of our attention too often feel they don’t have a choice. Too often they fear for their jobs and future prospects.

When you couple a victim’s fears with an ego so out of control and so narcissistic, you have a man who doesn’t have any empathy for the position he is putting others in. I’m not a psychologist so I can’t explain it, but the bizarre nature of the actions of some of these men just defies logic.

I’m left shaking my head and saying what are you thinking? You thought "X" was a way to attract a woman? You thought that was appropriate behavior? What planet do you live on?

But what we are going through now is long overdue and will ultimately improve our society.

However, we also need some fundamental changes in our business and political cultures. And the most important change will be more women in leadership positions particularly as CEOs and elected officials. Only having more women at the top of organizations will break the boys’ club culture.

I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks but also worry about the amount of time it will take to get enough women into these positions and to change the culture. It'll be a slow process.

So what can we do right now?

I read a recent essay in the Washington Post by civil rights lawyer Debra Katz. She specializes in sexual harassment cases. Her essay was part of a group of commentaries, The One Best Idea for Ending Sexual Harassment.

Her idea: “Congress should apply the same standards for sexual misconduct that it does to violations of securities law.”

In other words, she is recommending better governance, reporting and whistleblower protections for employees. She argued that just like public financial statements, companies should file disclosures on the number of sexual harassment claims settled, amounts paid and actions taken.

She also points that corporate officers sign affidavits stating that they are in compliance with financial regulations and have the proper internal controls. They should sign similar affidavits for the sexual harassment policies and procedures and reports.

Katz and others argue that there isn’t enough public disclosure and transparency surrounding the sexual harassment claims that companies settle. Public disclosures as she describes would go a long way in address the secrecy and break the silence.

Katz is only talking about public companies, but it could easily be extended to government contractors who are not publicly-traded. Reporting their actions should be one of the things contractors officers check when awarding contracts and determining if a company is in good standing.

This idea isn’t a silver bullet but could help address one of the problems that these scandals have pointed out and continues to nag at me.

What about the enablers? The people who either helped cover up or purposely looked the other way?

Publicly disclosing sexual harassment activities and settlements -- while protecting the identity and privacy of the victim -- will force companies to be more proactive.

If you are a senior executive and you are facing real legal consequences, you’ll think twice before sweeping something under the rug. You’ll be more supportive of training and education and more likely to send a clear message that bad behavior won’t be tolerated and those who take part or enable that bad behavior won’t be tolerated other.

This won’t solve all the problems but public disclosure and more female leaders will certainly help create a healthier culture, and that will benefit men and women.

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