The Courage to Say “It’s Wrong.”

Man finding inner strength to speak up against workplace issues

Courage. When it comes to Workplace Conduct & Ethics, it is in short supply these days.

From the hallowed halls of Congress to the Board room to the floor of the manufacturing facility, it is always easier to turn a blind eye from bad behavior than it is to put up your hand and say “…It’s wrong.” Harassers and bullies are de facto empowered to harass and bully, as long as they hit their numbers for the month. The pace of scandals seems to be accelerating. This is the time for courage.

There has been a great deal of talk lately about corporations filling a void in our society – becoming activists for change regarding critical social issues. The Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation is an excellent example. The statement acknowledges that capitalism itself is wobbling. If corporations don’t rebalance their priorities away from shareholder primacy in favor of other stakeholders, at some point their shareholders won’t be left with very much at all.  

Employees, of course, should be at the top of the list of critical stakeholders. It is their hard work and effort that allows for all of the other stakeholders to see a positive return. Wages are certainly part of the issue. Workplace culture, however, is arguably just as important. The data is clear – there is still a systemic crisis in terms of harassment, bias, discrimination, bullying, and retaliation taking place at organizations of all shapes and sizes. Many times, these behaviors are allowed to persist because of the overarching focus on profitability. Bad actors are often great producers who, again, are de facto empowered to behave badly because of their financial impact.

So, we come back to courage. It takes a great deal of courage for a junior associate who is being sexually harassed by a top performer to put her hand up and say “Stop, it’s wrong.” It takes a great deal of courage for a colleague to see that harassment taking place, to intervene and say “Stop, it’s wrong.” It takes a great deal of courage for a Regional Vice President, who has just been informed about the situation, to say “I don’t care how much he sells – it’s wrong.” It takes a great deal of courage for the CEO to say to the entire team after the top-producing perpetrator has been fired, “…If you think it’s acceptable to behave in an inappropriate manner towards your colleagues, it’s time to find a new job. I don’t care if you are our top salesperson or an intern, if you harass someone, I will fire you. It’s that simple.”

When bad actors know that their subordinates, peers, managers and senior executives will have the courage to say “It’s Wrong,” they will be deterred from acting badly. Indeed, it is that simple.

Building a culture of courage requires several things. First, it requires senior leaders who act courageously and publicly recognize the others who do the same. Second, it requires an environment in which there is zero-tolerance for retaliation against individuals who alert others to wrongdoing. Third, it requires preparation. Courage takes root in confidence, and confidence takes root through experience. Training needs to provide people at all levels of the organization with an opportunity to engage in ‘courageous acts’ in a realistic way. Simulation training is a great example – it allows managers and leaders to dry-run stressful scenarios that will require moral courage, in a safe and realistic way.

If business leaders don’t have the courage to address negative workplace behaviors on their own accord, employees, regulators, plaintiff’s attorneys, insurers, and shareholders will lead that charge.

It’s time for leaders to lead the fight – courageously – against harassment, bias, discrimination, bullying, and other debilitating workplace behaviors. By putting employees first, everyone will win.