Leaders are guides and role models – this equates to active conduct and behaviours that align with ethical leadership and integrity.
Notably, the word “silence” is derived from the word “silere” which means “to be quiet or still.” Being still or quiet is incompatible with leadership when leaders are confronted with unethical behaviour, because as guides, leaders need to listen, reflect, and take a course of action.
Australia has been shaken by allegations of Parliamentary sexual misconduct and leadership silence (1). Australia is not alone. A global look finds silent leadership in the setting of sexual misconduct is not uncommon: in February 2021 the Head of the prestigious French university, Sciences Po, resigned due to inadequate responsiveness following notification of incest allegations involving a professor and his step-son (2). In 2019, the US Department of Defense released a report on military workplace culture, sexual assault and sexual harassment, with findings including a tolerance of such misbehaviour with a hesitancy to punish (3). When victims and witnesses of sexual harassment and assault voice their experiences, there is a duty of leaders (intrinsic to their role) to guide, not be passive.
Leadership silence creates multiple problems for organisations and their employees. Leaders might think silence is a sign of neutrality or fairness; however, it can be viewed as betrayal whereby silence with inaction fail to deliver accountability and justice. Organisations require an audible tone about sexual harassment and abuse – an audible tone from leaders modelling ethical behaviour and setting a zero tolerance for misconduct. This audible tone is not silent or still, rather it is part of corporate culture, values, and attitudes, and the resulting corporate climate behaviours. Research shows these optimised organisational conditions can reduce sexual harassment because the tone of an organisation about this topic is a significant predictor for its occurrence in the workplace (4).
“Turfing” is form a of passive action witnessed when leaders and others fail to operationalise their responsibilities and hand off problems for others to explore. With allegations of unethical conduct, exploration is a duty for all leaders, not just the police (i.e., criminal investigations). Leaders can launch internal/external investigations. They can also initiate robust culture and climate assessments using scientifically validated surveys that measure the operationalisation (or lack of) corporate virtues, moral judgement, and decision-making motives. These surveys ‘take the pulse’ of the organisation, exploring its ethical health/toxicity, leading to advice for meaningful preventative and corrective action. A toxic workplace in tandem with leadership silence is an unsafe workplace.
Whether in government or corporations, leaders set the gold standard for behaviour. Leaders need moments of reflective silence, but these should be following by ethical action. Society puts their trust in government and corporations to facilitate safe workplaces. Accordingly, trust is earned – not with silence or mere words, but with action. Our guidance regarding leadership, action, culture, and trust aligns with Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s 2020 Report, [email protected]: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry (5).
If your organisation’s culture and climate need a ‘health check’, or you’d like to explore more about organisational ethics, reach out to the Advisory Service at Your Call, [email protected]
Katrina A. Bramstedt, PhD Head of Advisory, Your Call
Dominic Lallo, BJuris LLB, Senior Legal Counsel at Clarity Workplace Solutions & Your Call
- https://media.defense.gov/2020/Apr/30/2002291696/-1/-1/1/15-ANNEX-1-2019-MILITARY-SERVICE-GENDER-RELATIONS-FOCUS-GROUPS-OVERVIEW-REPORT.PDF [page 101]
- Willness, C. R., Steel, P., & Lee, K. (2007). A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. Personnel Psychology, 60, 127–162. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6570.2007.00067.x.