Workplace sexual harassment

Management / The American View: Fixing What’s Bro-ken

The American View: Fixing What’s Bro-ken

The military needs to learn at least one lesson from the private sector. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger argues that some mature private sector companies' approach to addressing sexual harassment needs to be adopted … everywhere.

Over dinner last night, one of the ministers [1] brought up my column on sharing best practices between dissimilar industries and asked me what commercial best-practices might be applicable to the military. He understood the utility of brining military discipline and long-range planning to the often-chaotic corporate world and wondered what the wild for-profit world might share in return. We were interrupted by our server before I could answer, which is probably for the best since my immediate answer was ‘purging the misogynistic jerks who make their fellow squaddies’ lives a living hell.’

Looking back on it, I assume that wasn’t a polite topic to introduce at a dinner with clergy. Still, the topic was bothering me at the time since I’d been listening to Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal’s interview with Bloomberg Technology’s Emily Chang on the radio right before pulling in to the restaurant. In it, Chang discussed her new book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley., I’ll let Amazon’s sales pitch for the book explain its premise:

‘For women in tech, Silicon Valley is not a fantasyland of unicorns, virtual reality rainbows, and 3D-printed lollipops, where millions of dollars grow on trees. It's a "Brotopia," where men hold all the cards and make all the rules. Vastly outnumbered, women face toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment, where investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.’

Men singing karaokeI used to think that drunks trying to sing was an unforgivable use of company time. Then the phrase ‘network at sex parties’ significantly expanded the spectrum of utterly unacceptable behavior.

To be clear: this isn’t mean to be petty ‘virtue signalling’ on my part. I honestly and thoroughly despise this kind of predatory behaviour. I may not be a military man any longer, but I still think like one. The thought of some ethically-bankrupt lecher preying on my people is infuriating – even in the hypothetical. I didn’t stand for that sort of foul conduct in uniform, and I won’t stand for it in corporate life. No leader should.

That’s what I wanted to share with the curious clergymen: one of the most beneficial practices that the military can steal from the corporate world is the best-practice of terminating misogynistic predators immediately upon discovery. No long rehabilitation process, no gentle counselling; treat offenders like the metaphorical live grenades that they are and drop-kick them out of the organisation as soon as they manifest.

It isn’t controversial to argue that leaders who sexually harass their subordinates, create cultures of institutionally-acceptable discrimination, and/or allow one team member to humiliate or harm another cannot be trusted to maintain (let alone to create) a stable or professional workplace. That’s self-evident. The controversial part, I think, comes from arguing for immediate dismissal rather than following the conventional standard of gradually increasing remedial pressure. For that, I want to hold up the military as the gold standard of how not to handle it.

To be fair, I can’t speak for the British military because I’ve never served in or with UK troops. The US military, on the other hand, tends to be awful at this. You’d think it wouldn’t be, what with all the honour creeds and codes of conduct. In reality, those aspirational trappings actually make it more likely that a sexual predator will be able to ply his trade in the ranks than less likely. There are two compelling reasons for this:

If you’re one of those folks who believes that the military can do no wrong, you’re probably not going to enjoy the next section

First, the enculturation process that the military uses to turn a civilian into a soldier, sailor, etc. is more theatre than it is transformation. It’s necessary – don’t get me wrong – but most of the process doesn’t actually change recruits’ beliefs so much as it facilitates the process of gradual change. When new recruits enter boot camp, for example, their heads get shaved and they get issued identical uniforms. From more than two metres away, you can’t tell one squaddie from another without reading their nametags. This depersonalization is very useful in helping a new recruit feel less like a unique individual and more like a cog in a vast and complex machine. They begin to value the group over his or her self. The process works … but it’s not a permanent change in and of itself. Real change has to come through reflection and exposure.

Once a newly-trained squaddie graduate training and reaches his or her first duty station, the suppression of induvialism stops – and in many cases starts reversing. New troops get to adopt a hairstyle (within regulations), let their personality show, relax a bit … that is, they revert back to their pre-enlistment selves – be who they really are. The problem is, not all people who join the service are fundamentally good people who are compatible with espoused military values before they join. Some recruits are sexist jerks.

The second problem involves all of the time and money that goes into converting a civilian into a squaddie. Unit commanders, personnelists, and lawyers often fall victim to the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ mind-set. Since it takes up to two years to get a new kid through the recruitment and training pipeline, leaders become highly averse to discharging their ‘bad apples.’ They often prefer to rehabilitate anyone who doesn’t engage in headline-worthy felonies, and the regulations promote this approach. Right now, the insatiable demand for deployable personnel to sustain the Forever War pressures commanders to keep miscreants in the ranks whose attitudes are corrosive to good order and discipline, but don’t quite breach the ‘unendurable’ threshold.

This, but Photoshop a bunch of colourful ribbons and badges on both characters. 

In the US military, the typical discipline process goes like this:

  1. Verbal counselling
  2. Verbal reprimand
  3. Written counselling (X 3-5)
  4. Written admonishment
  5. Written reprimand (X 1-3)
  6. Docked pay and/or punishment detail
  7. Demotion
  8. Discharge

Oftentimes, a bad squaddie will get transferred before the commander can assemble enough paper to secure a discharge. God help you if you want to drop-kick an obviously incompatible scumbag out of the Army without following first completing all of the administrative steps. I know from painful experience that military lawyers will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid kicking a soldier out unless the weight of evidence from all prior disciplinary evidence is sufficient to forestall a lengthy and expensive appeal.

This, however, is what a good corporate entity does very, very well: the first time that an employee sexually harasses another employee, they get fired. Immediately. A responsible company doesn’t tolerate anyone creating a hostile work environment and won’t allow an identified predator to attack a second victim. It doesn’t matter if the offender is an executive or a clerk; attack a colleague and you’re history.

A good company fires the attack and supports the attacker’s victim(2); an awful company that needs to be burned to the ground does exactly the opposite

Does that always happen? Unfortunately, no. Emily Chang’s book is a painful reminder about how some companies catastrophically fail to live up to their stated institutional values. That’s why I think her book is a must-read for anyone serving in (or aspiring to) a management billet. Not to spoil any of her arguments, but I suspect that the US ‘start a Dot Com in your dorm room’ ethos encourages unqualified, inexperienced, and immature kids to become dashing entrepreneurs. While fortune may favour the bold, a crucial lack of leadership experience makes it difficult – if not impossible – for a company to create a just workplace culture. When you let what are effectively kids run a corporation, you’re highly likely to get a fraternity house culture.

As for how it needs to be done … I’ve worked in (and consulted to) some commercial companies that didn’t understand and therefore either had (or were susceptible) to this sort of cultural corruption. I’ve worked in (and consulted to) a lot more companies that truly got it. Those are the companies that the military needs to study and emulate. The best companies that I’ve been involved with placed executive emphasis on identifying and eliminating behaviour that undermined worker safety and workplace integrity.

I’m not arguing that companies should suspend due process or adopt a reflexive ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards unsubstantiated claims. The US military has already flirted with spastic overreaction policies and that approach didn’t work. Rather, I am advocating for the military to evolve the various Codes of Military Justice to increase the penalties for and to expedite the processing of cases involving sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and sexual assault.

If I seem disproportionately fired up about this subject, it’s because one of my best mates from combat medic school was affected by this and never got anything close to justice from the Army. Long story short: when job opportunities dried up in her hometown, she transferred from the reserves to active duty to get a steady pay cheque and benefits. One night, her drunk squad leader forced his way into her barracks room and raped her. She reported the assault to her platoon sergeant … who did nothing. ‘It’s too much trouble to conduct an investigation,’ he told her, and ‘It’s so difficult to bring charges’ and ‘It takes too long to get a qualified replacement.’

In essence, ‘We know that you were traumatized by a violent criminal act, but we don’t want to be minority inconvenienced. So shut up about it and remember that you’ll be punished if you ever fail to show respect to the man who attacked you.'

*#&$ that guy. By every ethical and professional standard that the US military purports to believe in, that buck sergeant should have been chucked in the stockade for his crime while the paperwork was processed for his Bad Conduct Discharge. That’s obvious. Further, I argue that the platoon sergeant should also have been drop-kicked out of the Army, both for having created a caustic work environment where the perp knew he could get away with sexual assault, and for having failed to take immediate corrective action to prevent a reoccurrence. I’ll further argue that their unit commander probably should’ve been booted out as well for good measure. Some cultural practices absolutely cannot be tolerated, and a unit’s leaders are responsible for their unit’s culture.

Private sector companies tend to be bad at creating and managing culture, but they get the concept of eliminating cultural threats swiftly and without remorse. There’s no room in a responsible business for employees who prey on their co-workers or for those leaders who allow such noxious behaviour to manifest. An organisation that lives and dies by profit and reputation intuitively understands that a worker whose actions threaten their profits and reputation cannot be tolerated one second longer than is absolutely necessary. The not-for-profit military needs to adopt the same mind-set.


[1] That’s ‘minister’ in the ‘Protestant clergy sense,’ not in the ‘head of a government agency’ sense.’ That said, if any UK government officials would like to have dinner with a snarky Texan, I’m game.

Title Allusions: Emily Chang, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley (2018 Book)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.