In the tragedy unfolding at Penn State, one has to believe the University had written employment policies for reporting inappropriate behavior by staff, whether directed toward co-workers or otherwise. Yet, the scandal is just one more example of how a culture of secrecy and privilege perpetuated from the top of an organization down will render useless the best intentioned of policies. Think the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Think Carl Greene and the Philadelphia Public Housing Authority. When a high-ranking official, be it a coach, a cleric or a corporate executive, engages in illegal or immoral activity, it takes a bold person indeed to be willing to risk one’s career, name and community standing to blow the whistle. Yet, unless an organization provides a truly independent body to whom conscientious persons can report serious allegations, few subordinates will be courageous enough to call out a leadership that is part of the problem.
Regular training is critical to eliminating the culture of secrecy. One wonders how many seminars on sexual harassment/misconduct prevention Penn State’s coaches attended? All managerial personnel should be trained at least annually on anti-harrassment, anti-discrimination and codes of conduct and informed in no uncertain terms that their jobs are on the line, as well as the perpetrator’s, for failing to report the harmful conduct. The training should reflect the organization’s commitment to preventing misconduct, and not be treated casually or derisively by managers. Since there are often few witnesses to incidents of sexual misconduct, the victim or complainant may find themselves pitting their credibility against a highly regarded official or executive with powerful friends. Only by assuring employees that allegations made in good faith will be taken seriously and investigated by persons without connections to the alleged perpetrator, and further that they will be protected from retaliation, will employees be emboldened to speak up.
In the end, the organization will suffer greatly for the failure of leadership. The organization can be vicariously liable for its leaders’ personal misconduct, in the case of Penn State perhaps in the tens of millions of dollars. Any organization, large or small, public, private or non-profit, would do well to heed the severe lessons of Penn State and the Philadelphia Housing Authority and examine their own culture before it is too late.