He’s Lost Control: How To Stop Sexual Harassment Before It Starts

In 2008, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton chose not to fire a senior advisor who was accused of sexually harassing a subordinate. At the time, Clinton’s action was more-or-less business as usual. But recent coverage of her decade-old personnel decision demonstrated a 180-degree shift in leadership norms. In The Washington Post and elsewhere, Clinton was criticized for showing too much tolerance towards the alleged harasser, then and now. Welcome to the post #MeToo world. Today, behavior by powerful men once considered tolerable has suddenly become grounds for dismissal and a potential liability for their company’s brand.

So how can companies get out ahead of potential personnel problems and minimize these risks? Rigorously enforcing company policies on sexual harassment and misconduct will deter some bad behavior, but it won’t prevent it. It’s much better to screen out risky leadership profiles from the start.

This is more complicated than it sounds, however. Future problem employees won’t come in to an interview ogling women or bragging about sleeping with previous subordinates. (Although that would make the screening job easy.) In fact, on first blush there appear to be very good reasons to hire the same leaders who end up harassing employees. Business leaders are frequently selected for valuable competencies associated with power, such as “decisiveness” and “confidence.” But, as Noble Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, hiring for these well-known leadership competencies comes with a fundamental risk: They are the same traits of people prone to overconfidence.

For Kahneman, there is a very thin line between acting decisively and acting impulsively. Overconfident leaders tend to make quick and intuitive decisions that often ultimately fail. These aren’t limited to sexual harassment. A recent study found that “alpha male” hedge fund managers, as measured by their high testosterone levels, performed worse financially than their lower alpha peers.  Kahneman’s argument – that there is a slippery slope between exercising power and abusing power – may seem obvious. But it directly challenges three common myths around workplace misconduct:

Myth #1. Boys will be boys

This myth claims that all men in positions of power are prone to misuse that power by, for example, making unwanted sexual advances, because…they simply can’t help themselves. Not true. Power is not the same as impulsiveness. Neither is power the same as self-control. Many powerful leaders also have high self-control. But, those leaders who abuse their power have low self-control.

Myth #2. Leaders with a “zipper problem” are otherwise just fine

In other words, male leaders can confine their problem to behaving badly with their female colleagues. Also, not true. Leaders with low self-control at work often lack self-awareness and empathy towards others, putting a strain on many of their work relationships. And they are generally at risk of engaging in other inappropriate, unethical, or even illegal behaviors at work. These behaviors can run the gamut from bad trading decisions to unethical accounting practices to regulation violations, and often involve deception to cover up these indiscretions.

Myth #3. He is obviously out of control

According to this myth, leaders who have low self-control are easy to spot. Not so. In their bestseller, Willpower, Roy. F. Baumeister and John Tierney demonstrate that willpower (also known as self-control) is a finite resource. We can use it up holding it together in one domain of our lives and then run out of it in another.  A powerful executive who might seem very buttoned up to his colleagues and friends could slip up and act inappropriately at work because he has exhausted his supply of willpower behaving well most of the time.

What all this means is that to avoid harassment and other bad behavior that can escalate rapidly into costly legal action, firing decisions or a tarnished business reputation, companies need to carefully select for powerful leaders with high self-control and screen out powerful leaders with low self-control. Here are three critical ways to jumpstart that selection process:

Commit to hiring responsible leaders

To really buy into the importance of hiring responsible leaders, companies need to understand how essential it is for their future bottom line. This is particularly true in male-dominated industries like technology, finance, and science, where most of the leadership positions are still filled by men, whose bad behavior can serve to keep their gender diversity numbers low.

High power, low self-control men are less likely to behave inappropriately to female peers or superiors because they tend to respect the hierarchy and pecking order; and the last thing they want is to get called out by women in positions of power.  So hiring more women into leadership positions can help to keep people with a risky leadership profile in check.

Do a cost-benefit analysis: Start with an estimate of the short-term value generated by today’s high performing men who sometimes behave badly. Then subtract the potential costs of their behavior to the company’s reputation with clients and talent. Next, compare what’s left of that estimated short-term value with the long-term value that could be generated by successful up-and-coming men and women with high self-control. Which one adds up to more?

Include self-control in your selection criteria

While using a typical leadership selection process, with interviews to assess candidates for job-specific competencies, ask questions about the candidate’s self-control. An example would be to ask a candidate: On a scale from 1 to 5 with 1 being “Not at all like me” and 5 being “A lot like me,” please rate yourself on the following statements (adapted from various self-control scales):

    1. I have a clear plan when Im working towards a goal.
    2. If I have difficulty concentrating on a task, I divide it into smaller tasks.
    3. I track my progress regularly when Im working on a goal.
    4. If I cannot reach a goal the first time trying then I keep working on small steps towards that goal.
    5. When I do not feel like working on a goal, it helps if I do something else that I enjoy.
    6. I prefer to finish a job that I have to do, before I start something I really like to do.
    7. What I do depends on how I feel.
    8. If I need to make a decision, I usually look for different options rather than deciding quickly and spontaneously.
    9. I am generally satisfied with how well I am doing my work.
    10. If I get emotional, I can usually take a step back and observe how it is affecting me.
    11. What is important to me is how I feel about my actions, not what others think.
    12. By changing how I am thinking, I am usually able to change how I am feeling about most things.

The interviewer can also follow-up with questions like: Can you give me an example of when you were willing to take a risk at work and it had a positive outcome? And then add the follow-on: Do you have an example of when being willing to take a risk had a negative outcome?

People may not rate themselves accurately, either because of low self-awareness or because they are dishonest, especially given the performance pressure of the interview situation. Interviewers should speak with a number of references for each candidate, including all recent past bosses, and a representative sample of peers and subordinates. References can be asked some of the self-control questions above about the candidate. Answers to all of these questions can provide important data to make a hiring decision. But that decision is ultimately a judgment call (that’s not based on an algorithm) about the potential risks relative to the potential payoffs of an individual’s future behavior and performance.

Screen for honest players

Despite what we think we know about detecting deception, most people, even those who are professionally trained in reading human behavior, like police officers and psychologists, don’t have much more than a 55% chance of determining when someone is lying. That is simply the nature of the beast: people who tend to get away with deceiving others are usually good at it.

But a distinguishing trait of responsible leaders is that they are honest even when the stakes are high. They will tell the truth even if their audience isn’t going to like what they hear. In contrast, leaders who behave impulsively in the workplace also tend to lie, even when the stakes are low.

One technique for screening for honest candidates is to ask their references if they have an example of when the candidate was honest, even when the truth was challenging for others to hear. Conversely, references can be asked if they have an example of when the candidate may have told a small white lie to smooth things over with coworkers or clients.

Sometimes a leader exhibits such excellent business performance, that many think their results outweigh the downsides of their bad behavior. But, look at how Kalanick’s forced resignation hit Uber’s stock, how Weinstein’s exposure for systematic sexual assault will disappear Miramax, and how Bezos has had to answer to the public for his harsh leadership tactics. Quite rapidly, misuses of power by business leaders that were previously endured more quietly are now being deemed as less acceptable trade-offs, even if they come from the next Apple, Uber or Amazon CEO. Every company will be well-served to get out ahead of the problem by actively selecting for responsible leaders and screening out the bad ones before they hit the bottom line.

This article was originally published in my new leadership column for Forbes. To read future articles about how business leaders can embrace and solve global challenges through innovation, follow me on ForbesTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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