Sally was a senior executive in a large Australian organisation. She applied for a senior leadership development program, offered to executives and very senior leaders in the business to develop them for CEO and Board roles. Over twelve months, she would go through a journey of learning and development with likeminded peers and colleagues, including online learning and weekend immersions with the group for workshops and study.
Over the year ahead, she would spend 6 long weekends with a group of colleagues who were on a similar leadership development journey to her.
She was so excited.
The problem emerges
On the first weekend immersion, it quickly became clear a member of the group was going to be problematic.
From the moment they all arrived, George was aggressive and abusive in his behaviour to the entire group – male and female. He would interject, put people down, and was consistently aggressive.
Over the first weekend, his behaviour escalated. He began to talk to the women in the group specifically with sexualised language and suggestive sexual behaviours. He began to physically come up behind the women, closely, and without warning. He was in their personal space without consent.
The entire cohort – men and women – were deeply uncomfortable with his behaviour.
A number of people individually made complaints about George to the Leadership Development coordinator after that first weekend. They spoke with the head of the program, and stated they were deeply uncomfortable about George’s behaviour.
The resolution recommended by the head of the program, was for the people within the group who had not been directly abused or intimidated, to hold a mediation meeting between George and those who had made the complaints.
How unbelievably dangerous is that? It was a catastrophe waiting to happen.
The head of the program had one meeting with George and told him his behaviour was unacceptable, George promised to behave. George was allowed to continue in the program.
The problem escalates
The group continued through the program, and meet for their weekend immersions.
George’s behaviour persisted and became worse at each immersion. The group complained again, George was spoken to – but his behaviour never changed.
By the fourth immersion, it became clear to the entire cohort that George was targeting a group of three women specifically – including Sally. The group would go out for dinner and drinks, and alcohol was a factor fuelling his behaviours.
On this particular immersion, Sally felt so uncomfortable she left the group and decided to return to her room. George followed her, forced his way into her room and attempted to rape her. Sally cried out for help, and other members of the group thankfully heard her, went in and pulled George off her.
They only just stopped him from completing his attempted rape.
What do I do now?
Sally was petrified. She was traumatised by the incident, but scared she would be kicked off the leadership program and lose the career opportunity if she spoke up.
Together with the two other women George targeted, and some supportive friends, they reached out to me for advice.
My immediate opinion was that George’s behaviour was criminal – because it was. He had assaulted her, attempted to rape her, and had shown a pattern of abusive behaviour. I recommended they go to the police and take out an Apprehended Violence Order.
But Sally was too ashamed. As an Executive, she felt there was too much stigma and she was to blame as well. She was terrified of the impact it would have on her career.
I worked with Sally, and the two other women, and encouraged them to at least report it internally. My suggestion was to report it in such a way that the risks were highlighted to the business.
They engaged me to create a report on their behalf to lodge with the Group Director.
Making the risks clear
In the Leadership program, there was a separate complaints process that required all issues to go to the head of the program, because it was separate to the daily jobs the group did. That meant the report had to go to the same person, who had already failed to take action and allowed George to continue his dangerous bahaviour.
I interviewed Sally, the other women targeted, and other members of the cohort. I also reviewed the organisation’s own policies and procedures.
I wrote down every single incident that had occurred up to and including the attempted rape. I then linked it to the policies that had been breached, and highlighted what the breach was.
The whole report was then summarised using the risk matrix to highlight the risk level and rated them based on the organisation’s own risk policy. Unsurprisingly, every risk was rated at crisis or catastrophic level.
I finalised the report with a list of recommendations on what should happen next to mitigate the risks to the business, and to ensure both psychological and physical safety for Sally and her colleagues going forward.
Detailed reporting matters
I got the group to engage independent advocates to support them in presenting the report to the head of the program. When they presented it, the head of the program was absolutely astounded with all of the areas in which the organisation had not met their responsibilities.
It emerged that the head of program had been engaging with HR, and questioned the HR team as to why they had advised him so poorly – and in breach of their own policies.
They decided to appoint an independent investigator to investigate the complaint and their own conduct in managing it.
The investigator contacted me and told me the level of detail in the report meant they did not need to re-interview the victims of George’s behaviour. I was relieved for them all, as this meant they were psychologically safe from here. They would not be re-traumatised, and their wellbeing would be put first.
However – at the end of the day – George was not charged at all. The organisation dragged out the process for so long, he ended up staying in his job for an extended period of time, continuing the leadership program, and negotiating an exit on his terms.
There were no consequences for the perpetrator of this appalling criminal behaviour – I personally think this is unacceptable, but it’s the reality in many cases like this.
Don’t let behaviour like this occur in your business
I am one of Australia’s leading Workplace Behaviour and Human Resources experts. While I can help you investigate incidents like this – my greatest value is helping you set up the framework so that they never occur in the first place.
Get in touch with me for a free consultation on your unique business needs, and we can take the first step towards creating a safe, equitable workplace for all your people.