A Call for an End to Harassment in National Security Workplaces

| Carmen Landa Middleton
Carmen Landa Middleton
Former Deputy Executive Director, CIA

Alongside news about North Korean missile tests, Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and “Rexit” (Is Rex Tillerson in or out at the State Department?), we are witnessing almost daily reporting of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men in entertainment, media, politics and technology, leading to calls for their resignation and dismissal.

The 10-year-old MeToo movement, which has experienced a resurgence as a Twitter hashtag in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, has provided an outlet of expression ranging from support to outrage.

We are witnessing an incredible moment, as survivors of sexual harassment and assault feel empowered enough to share their stories openly, and a few powerful men face public shame along with professional consequences.

No industry is immune, including national security, as evidenced by the recent open letter signed by more than 200 women in this field who have survived sexual harassment and assault or know someone who has experienced it.

I wonder, however, if this groundswell of individual and shared empowerment will result in any systemic changes in organizations, especially in the national security arena, where I spent more than three decades. These are the same organizations that have human resources departments, compliance shops and a plethora of rules, regulations and reporting. Yet, here we are in 2017, hearing allegations by our own against our own. Has anything really changed? Will anything change?

While serving as the CIA’s chief diversity officer, I worked closely with the director of the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity to launch an anti-harassment program within the organization in 2011, with a special emphasis on sexual harassment. This program was launched in response to a higher percentage of sexual harassment – experienced and witnessed – in the war zone. I have seen the impact of harassment on the workforce and on individuals, both women and men. Quite simply, sexual harassment destroys trust – trust in one another, trust in leadership and trust in the organization.

There are numerous and straightforward ways in which to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, understanding that each organization has its own culture, dynamics and rewards system that influence the overall success and longevity of efforts to create healthy work environments. And while most of our current conversations and reporting are focused on the lurid revelations about the behaviors of those accused, it is critical to shift the focus toward the steps our organizations need to take, if we are going to finally take sexual harassment in the workplace seriously. During my time as the chief diversity officer, as well as a manager and leader at the CIA, I took away three key lessons from implementing and sustaining an anti-harassment effort:

First, very few in the workforce, from managers to new employees, will welcome the introduction of mandatory anti-harassment training, but it is critical that such training take place periodically for the entire workforce. To be clear, such training will not necessarily change the hearts and minds of serial harassers, because these are the people who believe that the workplace is their own personal playground for abuse of power.

Such training is intended for the rest of us, the majority of the workforce at all levels. Good anti-harassment training provides clear boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the workplace, boundaries that senior leadership has established and has committed to maintaining. In addition, good training will provide the workforce with straightforward techniques and terminology to call out inappropriate behavior. I have seen teams embrace responsibility for the tenor of their team environment and step up to self-regulation; this is both powerful and empowering.

Second, an effective anti-harassment initiative must be driven, first and foremost, by senior leadership. This is not an issue to defer solely to the HR department, compliance shop or a consultant to carry out on an organization’s behalf. These entities have important roles to play, but organizations have been delegating the leadership of this responsibility for decades, and look where that has gotten us.

Senior leadership must take responsibility for articulating, modeling, and reinforcing what constitutes professional behavior in the workplace. In particular, when senior leaders make the connection between bad behavior and negative impact on the mission of the organization, employees will listen. While many in leadership are uncomfortable with the conflict, emotion and downright messiness of harassment as a topic, leading on this issue is an important competency for today’s leadership toolkit.

Third, accountability and transparency will lead to greater trust in the workplace. You do not have to be a hardened cynic to believe that leadership might give powerful and talented people a pass when it comes to disciplinary action – turning a blind eye, granting a softer punishment, or allowing a face-saving narrative for moving on to a new assignment or leaving the organization. National security is no different than other industries; we too have our “bad eggs.”

When management, however, gives proven harassers a soft landing in another part of the organization or remains silent when the harassers tell their tale of wanting to “pursue new opportunities” as the reason they are resigning or retiring, this only reinforces the workforce’s perception that management is easier on some rather than others, while invalidating the survivor’s experience and the need for a resolution.

The women and men who serve their country as national security professionals are among the most dedicated, hard-working, intelligent and talented people our nation has to offer. They deserve healthy, safe and professional places of work. It is time for leaders to leverage this moment in time to create lasting and positive change within their national security organizations.

The Author is Carmen Landa Middleton

Carmen Landa Middleton is the former deputy executive director of the CIA. During her CIA career, Middleton served in a variety of senior positions, including the 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 agency-wide anti-harassment program, with a special emphasis on sexual harassment. She is the founder &... Read More

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