Using 360 assessments and coaching to resolve harassment can work, avoid more costly alternatives
By Paul M. Connolly, PhD
An unlawful harassment accusation is destructive to individuals and their careers, disruptive to productivity and potentially catastrophic to business with resulting legal action. Sexual harassment is but one manifestation of common behaviors that are too often overlooked, unaddressed or denied.
Correcting some harassment situations in a way that is legally acceptable and ultimately beneficial for the organization can be accomplished by using a 360 assessment and executive coaching.
Jodie-Beth Galos is uniquely qualified in the process. As principal attorney in her Millerton, New York law firm, Galos & Associates, and a Senior Professional in HR (SPHR), she has made remediation coaching a sought-after service.
“Harassment cases are on the rise,” says Galos. “And there aren’t a lot of legal protections in the workplace, especially with ‘at-will’ employers.”
The stakes are daunting with the typical jury awards for sexual harassment cases reaching into the millions of dollars.
Deconstructing the behavior
The first step in addressing and preventing unlawful harassment is to deconstruct the problem as a series of behaviors to better understand it.
Except in cases of romantic intentions gone awry, harassment isn’t really about sex. In its simplest form, it’s bullying. When you frame it as bullying—a pattern of behavior—decoding a harasser’s modus operandi is similar to assessing for strengths and weaknesses.
Many of the same traits that seem like “the right stuff” for leadership that help a manager emerge as a candidate for executive advancement can also cause negative behaviors when taken to extreme.
Whether this plays out in direct gender-based intimidation, inappropriate humor for the sake of asserting hierarchy or affronts to any of the other eight federally protected classes (see chart A), the motivation is basically the same. Power.
What to look for
Bullying in all its forms is about abuse of powers and disrespect of others. Galos sums it up as “watching someone else being uncomfortable and enjoying it.” Functionally, it plays out as, “I can get away with this, because I’m more powerful than you and you’re helpless to stop me.”
“Having a male dominated workplace is pernicious,” says Galos. “Wall Street, manufacturing and construction are classic settings. But harassment is not ‘natural selection,’ because there are many organizations that forbid bullying cultures.”
Coaching or coddling?
Remediation through coaching can, in some cases, be far less expensive and provide a more positive outcome for all concerned parties. The organization can retain and improve the performance of an otherwise valuable executive in the harasser. The victim gets justice. The harasser can get his or her career back on track.
Coaching is demanding on the person being coached. When it’s framed as the last chance to change behavior before dismissal, coaching can be an emotional and life-changing experience.
Following the delivery of the 360 feedback, a personal action plan created by the client is the first step of coaching. This might include multiple action points such as, “take time to meet with each person over the next month to review how their work fits into the overall department objectives.” Once that is drafted the coaching engagement begins a months-long process of one-on-one dialogue between the coach and the client in which strengths and weaknesses as revealed by the assessments are addressed.
A strength might be articulated as, “your results suggest that you are very good at spotting problems in procedures.” A weakness might be articulated as, “your results also suggest that you may point these problems out without considering the impact of your tone on others, who apparently view this as being a bit blunt and inconsiderate.”
The person being coached is responsible for evaluating his or her progress, as new behaviors are put into practice day to day.
“I can imagine how this might be helpful,” says Sandra L. Shullman, a psychologist, executive coach and partner with the Greensboro, North Carolina firm Executive Development Group. “However, HR and managers in charge need to think about how willing the affected members of the organization are to participate effectively.”
A coach to victims of harassment and an expert in harassment cases, Shullman has also consulted with client firms seeking to reform harassers.
Shullman suggests that 360s and coaching should be applied judiciously because using 360s as remediation could cast a negative light on assessments, decreasing their acceptance for positive development interventions. She also advises that both of these processes should never be a substitute for sanctions or the mandate to maintain appropriate behavior.
Assessing for harassing behavior
All coaching is greatly enhanced with the feedback derived from 360 assessments, because it provides an objective baseline of information about how the client is perceived by others in the organization. In harassment remediation it’s no different.
Generally speaking, the most common goals for using 360 feedback are:
- Enhanced individual awareness
- A better balance of skills within an individual
- Clarification of vision or mission
- Preparing individuals for new roles
- Adaptability to rapid change
- Increased team commitment
None of these goals will be achieved with bullying behavior, because it ruins relationships. People don’t forget, or forgive, an emotionally bruising experience.
It’s important to remove the idea that being smart or being driven or even achieving results isn’t enough, if the consequences are that we damage another part of the organization.
When sexual harassment is framed as bullying and inappropriate use of power and control, a 360 supports the coach with highly accurate data that helps the coach clarify what’s going wrong and gives the harasser clear benchmarks and goals for improvement.
For example, an assessment might have questions about applying pressure. One of the questions reveals, “Being assertive when someone misses an objective.” That’s okay. The next question is more situationally assertive, such as, “Complains when things don’t go right.” That could be okay, depending on the circumstances. But then there is the “ogre” question that reveals a behavior like, “Publicly criticizing people when they make an honest mistake.” That is rarely, if ever, going to be appropriate. Assessments use these questions to characterize the pressure and to identify when someone has crossed the line to negative actions.
Galos stresses the importance of directing the subject to get enough raters—peers, direct reports, bosses, and family who are asked to anonymously rate the client. The executive is asked who his raters are and sent back to get more raters if one category comes up short.
It’s important for raters to focus on observations, not judgments. Stay away from 360 questions that ask for a conclusion. Instead, ask questions that seek an observation. Instead of asking, “how often do you see Paul as a bully,” type questions, ask, “how often Paul gets angry when things don’t go right.”
Asking questions this way is likely to give a more balanced picture of the person getting feedback, so that extent of the coaching need is clearer and more defined. It also helps identify things the person is doing right—such as being a good negotiator or a really strong business analyst.
Deadlines are crucial in all phases of the coaching process in order to establish a serious expectation for work and improvement by the coaching client, as well as to demonstrate that the coaching engagement is a process with a ‘finish line.’
Will the raters be honest if they fear retribution from the assessment client?
“If the harasser has seriously violated civil or criminal law, there is likely to be a dilemma for the raters about how forthcoming and candid they can really be about an individual who may be perceived as vindictive,” says Shullman. “But if it’s a case of a series of ‘edging across the line’ of inappropriate behavior, with a willing learner, a good 360 could be helpful in gaining honest feedback.”
Coaching with feedback data
As with any assessment instrument, the data derived is only as valuable as the coaching it supports. For sexual harassment, coaching walks a fine line between legal interests and organizational development.
“When I give feedback, I don’t belabor the past,” says Galos. “I ask the person what she or he’ll be doing differently in the future and I coach the harasser to coach, not demand.”
This is a very positive point in coaching that can turn around prior events of harassment and improve future job performance by showing the harasser that he can be more effective by mastering how to appropriately manage subordinates without being controlling or abusive.
“People may not have a model for how to give direction,” says Galos, “It’s challenging to model behavior you’ve never seen.”
Coaching can get a manager to stop barking orders and learn that he is more successful with other methods that get subordinates to respond more quickly. This behavioral approach can be a catalyst for changing long-term values.
“The way adults learn, if you can change the way they do something so that they’re successful, that will change the way they think about it,” says Galos.
Coaching can work if…
Galos has worked in human resources and employment law for 35 years. Since starting her own practice 16 years ago, she has intervened in sexual harassment cases at scores of organizations. Success is about 30%.
“I have gone back to clients and said, ‘(the harasser) doesn’t get it’,” says Galos. “If I have a sense that they have no desire or incentive to change, I suggest termination or I terminate myself from the engagement.”
In Shullman’s experience with harassment victims, she says, “Many victims will often ask, ‘can you just make them stop or understand that what they’re doing is wrong.’ In these cases, the harasser can sometimes benefit from education and understanding the impact of their behavior.”
“You’ve got to look at the magnitude of what they (the harasser) has done,” says Galos. “If it’s likely to be repeated, I recommend termination, but there is also the possibility that the harasser has simply been socially inept.”
“The problem is when it’s in the middle and the harasser is considered too valuable to terminate,” says Galos.
Shullman cites an example of a firm at which she provided confidential consultation that was involved with a public offering. Its CEO was likely guilty of routine harassment and clearly bad behavior. The offender was literally worth millions to the organization, due to the possible public transaction; so firing was not viewed as an immediate option. Coaching, in that case, was a stopgap measure.
Five indicators coaching can work
Galos suggests five indicators of a willing intervention participant who is likely to be successful:
- Empathy—understanding why the other person felt violated. “Emotional Intelligence,” sometimes EQ, is designed to determine a person’s level of empathy.
- Not blaming others—understanding why the other person didn’t deserve to be treated disrespectfully, no matter what their performance problem was. One of the simplest ways people can demonstrate this is called the “3 Rs”: repeat, restate, and reflect. When a person makes a statement or raises an issue, the coach responds by repeating, “you don’t feel heard.” Restating, “So you are saying you don’t feel heard.” And reflecting, “It must be hard to come to work when you feel unheard and that important issues don’t get resolved.”
- Respect—seeing how the behavior links to a broader way of viewing others. This is similarly manifested in behaviors like using the “3 Rs.”
- Accepting the cost—knowing what the behavior change will mean in terms of emotional investment. For example, they understand if they don’t follow through on the agreed change, a promotion or possibly their job will disappear.
- Self-monitoring—accepting what they will need to be doing differently and participating in scheduled check-ins to confirm it.
What success looks like
At the end of successful remedial coaching, the organization should expect that the workplace is a better space for everyone to do their jobs effectively. Often this is the sort of thing that does get measured by a subsequent feedback survey. For example, a 20% reduction in people saying they are looking for work elsewhere or a 15% increase in speed to respond to customer inquiries.
The reformed harasser has an action plan developed in collaboration with the coach to insure that bullying will stop. A plan might include, “always repeat, restate or reflect before presenting your own view in a situation where a person has expressed some frustration.”
The organization has a record of action that is not only admissible in court, but also an inoculation against litigation in the first place. A plaintiff’s attorney will see much less incentive when an organization presents proof of a formal remediation process.
“There are circumstances in which the client simply needs to learn enough to ‘not do it again,” says Shullman. “In these cases, 360s and coaching might be very helpful.”
Harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination. It always has to be addressed in favor of the victim. However, it does not always mean that the harasser has to be fired. Talent management can address the problem with the same toolkit that it uses to develop individuals and correct any other negative behavior, while complying with anti-discrimination regulations and avoiding far more expensive legal remedies.
Dr. Paul M. Connolly is owner of Performance Programs, Inc, a firm specializing in personality and 360 assessments.