The news has been filled with high-profile sexual harassment cases recently. Although more women seem to be coming forward lately to tell their stories and bring misconduct to light, it’s far from a new phenomenon, and it’s not isolated to politicians and the Hollywood elite.
The power industry has been a “men’s club” for much of its history, and that comes with consequences. Crude behavior can flourish under such conditions. Although the culture may be improving, there is still more work to be done.
Women in the Workplace
During my career, I have witnessed some changes first hand. When I joined the U.S. Navy in the mid-1980s, women were not allowed in the nuclear power program. However, during my service tenure, Congress repealed combat exclusion laws and women began entering the nuclear ranks. At the time, they were only allowed to serve on surface ships, but even that has changed now. According to an April 2017 Navy Times article, about 80 female officers and 50 enlisted women are now stationed on submarines.
When I left the military in 1999, I took a job at the Quad Cities nuclear plant in Cordova, Illinois. Quad Cities was emerging from a high-profile sexual harassment case when I arrived. Even though Commonwealth Edison, the majority owner and plant operator at the time, had an anti-harassment policy on the books, the rules hadn’t prevented the development of what some women reported was “a hostile and sexually charged work environment.”
According to a story published by the Chicago Tribune, one woman, who had worked in the electrical maintenance shop, was quoted as saying, “It was terrible in there. I told my girlfriend it was like going into a kindergarten class. They would jump on each other, punch each other. They used bad language all the time.”
The misbehavior went well beyond verbal innuendo, however. In one purported incident, a woman’s bra strap was snapped and her shirt was ripped by a male employee. Another time, a male employee allegedly exposed his genitals to a female employee in an elevator. A foreman was involved in another incident; he reportedly greased up his hands and grabbed a woman’s buttocks, leaving handprints, and he was said to have reached for the woman’s breasts as well.
Three employees, including a manager, were ultimately fired due to misconduct at Quad Cities. The company also reprimanded other workers at the site. By the time I got there, significant steps had been taken to change the culture, and expectations were very clear—inappropriate behavior would not be tolerated.
Changing Company Culture
From my perspective, the culture at Quad Cities did change following the lawsuit. However, a workplace doesn’t have to go through such a negative ordeal to facilitate change.
An article titled “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture: How to Manage the Eight Critical Elements of Organizational Life” was published in the January-February 2018 issue of the Harvard Business Review. The authors defined corporate culture as “the tacit social order of an organization.” They said it shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways, noting that it is shared, pervasive, enduring, and implicit.
In research conducted for the article, the cultures of more than 230 companies were analyzed, along with the leadership styles and values of more than 1,300 executives. Several culture styles emerged. The spectrum varied from flexible to stable and from independent to interdependent. Regardless of the existing style, the authors suggested that certain steps can be taken to change the culture.
First, they said, the current culture must be assessed. Leaders must “understand what outcomes the culture produces and how it does or doesn’t align with current and anticipated market and business conditions.” Once management really understands the playing field, it can establish a target culture to shoot for.
Leaders set the tone. They “serve as important catalysts for change by encouraging it at all levels and creating a safe climate.” New leadership candidates should be evaluated on their alignment with the target culture, and incumbent leaders who are unsupportive must become engaged and realigned through training and education. It was noted that culture change can, and does, lead to turnover—some employees leave on their own volition, some not.
Organizational conversations about culture must be used to underscore the importance of change. Some conversational examples that support change include “road shows, listening tours, and structured group discussions.” In some cases, the overall organizational design must be modified to reinforce the change. Strengths and gaps must be evaluated, and a restructuring of leadership roles may be necessary.
The authors offered one example in which a company’s top leaders invited a large group of middle managers into the discussion. Leadership conferences were held, and “a platform for input, feedback, and the cocreation of an organizational change plan with clear cultural priorities” was established. The initiative placed middle managers in change roles traditionally filled by vice presidents.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how a company goes about changing its corporate culture, just that it does when conditions warrant it. Clearly, any corporate culture that allows harassment and other misconduct to be tolerated needs to be quickly corrected. ■
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.