Amidst the seemingly daily allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct across almost every industry – entertainment, media, politics, technology, etc. – I have been anticipating the companion piece to this incredible moment of accountability: accountability for those in the chain of command.
In the past several months, we have witnessed the removal, resignation, investigation, and loss of reputation of many powerful alleged harassers. But only in the last few weeks, have we begun to see this second wave of accountability – directed at those who allowed the harassment to happen on their watch.
One of the most compelling examples of this next wave of accountability can be viewed in the strikingly pointed BBC interviews of Oxfam GB’s former Chief Executive Dame Barbara Stocking and current Executive Director of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima. The scandal, first reported this month by The Times of London, centered initially on misconduct that took place in Haiti in 2011, when the national director for Oxfam and senior aid workers hired local sex workers.
That was only the beginning, as reports emerged that aid agencies, including Oxfam, were told that aid workers were abusing children in Haiti a decade ago, as well as further reports of abuse in Asia and Africa. One only needs to watch a few minutes of each of those interviews to see how hot the seat can get for leaders trying to explain their knowledge, decisions and actions.
The fallout for this British aid agency is significant. Oxfam’s Deputy Chief Executive has resigned; actress Minnie Driver has resigned as the organization’s celebrity ambassador; the organization itself has agreed to stop bidding for government funding until the U.K.’s Department for International Development is satisfied that Oxfam can meet the Department’s “high standards” and thousands have canceled their contributions to the organization.
Leaders should take serious note of the Oxfam case, because it is not simply the revelations of the abuse, but rather charges of mishandling the conduct and lack of full disclosure that has led to swift and sharp response against the organization. People are beginning to ask who knew what when, and what did they do about it?
During my career at the CIA, I had the opportunity to lead a number of after-action reviews and serve on the personnel review board. There were times when the actions and behaviors of a small number of my colleagues shocked and surprised me; but I learned that all organizations have their bad apples. One question I learned to ask – a bit tongue in cheek – in all of these difficult personnel cases: Where were the grownups?
Leadership is at the heart of organizational culture, and we are beginning to witness some important efforts toward greater accountability of those in charge and under whose authority harassment and misconduct is taking place.
Leaders with oversight responsibilities, for example, are taking action. In response to the open letter on sexual harassment, signed by more than 200 women in national security arena, the Senate intelligence committee in December asked the Director of National Intelligence to step up efforts to counter sexual harassment in national security agencies.
And Senate foreign relations committee members Senators Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., recently asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and USAID Administrator Mark Green to review and analyze their data to better understand the scope of sexual harassment and assault issues at the department and agency, as well as make appropriate policy changes to address the problem.
Good leaders are taking this opportunity to assess whether some aspects of their organizational cultures need to change. A senior executive from a Fortune 500 company who shall remain nameless recently shared with me that her organization was going to look hard at its prevalent “hugging culture,” in light of the times. Other leaders are articulating their expectations for workplace behavior and the consequences for crossing that line. Some of the most powerful moments are the result of thoughtful self-reflection, as leaders acknowledge that they could have done more to strengthen the health and safety of the workplace, as well as walk the talk.
Oxfam executives, including Byanyima have apologized for the scandal. Rebuilding trust will not be easy. Good leaders learn from the mistakes of the past, including the woeful mishandling of misconduct, and they embrace accountability, even if it hurts.
Carmen Landa Middleton is the former deputy executive director of the CIA, and held a number of senior positions at the CIA, including director of the Open Source Center and the Chief Diversity Officer, during which she served as a co-chair on the historic major study, Director’s Advisory Group on Women in Leadership, and oversaw the launch of an anti-harassment program, with a special emphasis on sexual harassment, within the Agency.