#ASAE18: Addressing Sexual Harassment Demands More Than a Training Seminar

At her Monday Game Changer session, former White House aide Tina Tchen encouraged attendees to consider sexual harassment as just one part of a range of inequalities that contribute to toxic workplace cultures.

Having a sexual harassment policy at your organization is crucial, but that’s not enough to address systemic issues of abuse and inequality in the workplace. That’s the message Tina Tchen delivered Monday at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition  in her Game Changer session, “Time’s Up: Eradicating Abuse of Power, Leadership Imbalances, and Inequality.”

We’ve been training for legal compliance. We haven’t been training for the culture we want.

Tchen, who served in the White House as assistant to President Barack Obama and as First Lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, is now a partner at the law firm Buckley Sandler LLP, where she launched a practice addressing workplace culture issues just weeks before public revelations about Harvey Weinstein helped spark the #MeToo movement. As a result, Tchen now leads the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal assistance to those registering workplace complaints.

Since the fund’s launch in January, it has received more than 3,250 requests for assistance from a wide range of workplaces and experiences. Two-thirds of the requests come from low-income workers across 60 industries. “This is happening everywhere,” she said.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sexual harassment is illegal, the problem remains widespread, Tchen said. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 28,000 sexual harassment claims in 2015, and Tchen argues that toxic workplace cultures are connected to broader failures to create more diverse and equitable workplaces. Lack of paid maternity leave and sick leave policies, pay gaps, and low diversity in the C-suite persist.

“Despite decades of making the business case for diversity and inclusion, the numbers are still too low,” she said.

One reason the problem persists, Tchen noted, is because the law on workplace harassment inadequately addresses it. “We’ve been training for legal compliance,” she said. “We haven’t been training for the culture we want.”

Employees are increasingly looking to their employers to do more than make public declarations of their commitment to improving workplace culture. Rather, workers want them to actively practice it. “If you want the most talented folks, you need to have a culture that is going to attract the most diverse talent,” she said.

CEOs and volunteer leaders need to take the reins and make clear that their organizations are focused not only on sexual harassment, but also on workplace bullying, hiring practices, and other areas that create inequality, Tchen said.

“The message has to be owned by the board and the CEO so it can flow down to the rest of the organization,” she said.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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