Recent front-page headlines underscore the embarrassing place companies can be put in when sexual harassment charges are brought against them or someone in their employ. It seems we cannot go a day without hearing about the wrongdoing of someone, somewhere.

While the issue of sexual harassment is not new and has been against the law in the U.S. for decades, it seems to be alive and well in the workplace. Surveys indicate that one in three women have been sexually harassed and over 16% of all sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are from men.

This was the subject of a recent panel discussion that I moderated with about thirty Page members from around the country. We discussed the issue of sexual harassment and the importance of having a credible organizational response. We emphasized that perceptions of that response are solidly linked to the organization’s values, how their values are conveyed and whether they are believed.

Research shows concerning factors to consider. A 2014 study, conducted by The Boston Research Group (2014) based on a survey of Americans from many organizational levels, found that only 3% described their company’s values as a form of “self-governance.” And according to a Gallup study (2016), only 23% of employees strongly believe in their company’s values. No matter how well intentioned an organization can be about creating an inclusive, transparent and ethical culture, subcultures can form when alternative behaviors are rewarded and punished. This can lead to dysfunction and a deterioration of a culture.

The points were made that there are elevating legal issues that have come to the fore, not just regarding sexual harassment but accompanying issues around pay equity and how to address gender disparities in the workplace. Best practices were also shared about how organizations can regularly ‘take the temperature’ of their employees through regular polling and elicit sentiment on a variety of issues to surface problems and potential landmines before they explode

We have an opportunity as CCOs to step up on this issue by identifying contemporary ways we should support our organization’s values and advance policies on sexual harassment and organizational understanding and commitment. While this is not the typical communications issue we grapple with every day, when poorly communicated we could find our company on the front page and then scrambling to do something to address it. Some of the things we can consider to help guide our respective organizations include:

Make materials contemporary, relevant and real! 

While companies have developed and communicated their policies and reporting procedures regarding sexual harassment for years, just how effective are those communications? Are they the same stale communications that have been used for years? Companies would be well served to reconsider the effectiveness of their sexual harassment communications and employee training programs. They should ensure they are not just ‘checking the box’ to a perfunctory task.

Ensure management reinforcement (and not just the CEO annual letter).

Does management reinforce these messages actively? Sexual harassment is one of those subjects that may be less comfortable for leaders to talk about.  It is for these same reasons they should be willing to open up and own talking about it. This is not just a human resources or communications issue.  This is a company issue. Make them own it the same way they own business results.

Give management the tools to talk about it.

Give them the tools so they can address the issues and answer the questions. This will require more than just some talking points and the proverbial FAQs. Employees will be listening carefully, and tone and sincerity will be vital in their credibility. Help them. Craft messages that are simple direct and acknowledge the company position without using jargon or verbiage that may seem disingenuous and ‘cookie cutter’. Coach leaders through their delivery and question and answer sessions.

Take the pulse of your employees.

As stated, this is a really terrific way to get at issues before they get out of control. While companies often survey employees through engagement surveys and similar instruments, other qualitative measures should be considered. These could include sampling employee populations through focus interviews and groups, and regular quick, anonymous ‘pulse surveys’ that identify if there are issues of wrongdoing of any nature, including sexual harassment. Utilizing a third-party who is experienced in surfacing these employee issues may be an investment that could pay big dividends in the end.

Monitor Social Media Channels on an ongoing basis.

Not just to see if there are inappropriate things being said online but also to gauge whether there are signs of underlying issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. As we know, social media channels can be a source for employees to vent about things they might not raise in the workplace.

Get the issue on the agenda…now!

If you think “it won’t happen here” you have your head in the sand. CCO’s must be bold and take this subject on in the boardroom and make it a priority on the agenda regularly. Controversy is hard to take on. A crisis is even harder. Through an effective issues management program, crisis can be mitigated. Don’t shy away from this one.

While these efforts will not insulate your company from sexual harassment, they will make a strong statement to your employees, customers, suppliers, communities and stakeholders what kind of company you are, the values you embrace and the behaviors that are expected.