After years of resistance, the formerly-named “Washington Redskins” have finally dropped their racist team name and are looking for a new mascot. But beyond rebranding, the newly minted “Washington Football Club” is also scrambling to tackle allegations of sexual harassment levelled this summer by more than 40 female employees. That will take far more than a new logo to fix.

The women told the Washington Post in July and August 2020 they were subjected to abuse, leering, lewd cheerleader videos – carried out by, condoned and/or ignored by top team executives – between 2006 and 2019.

The team’s owner issued a statement August 26, 2020 saying he was unaware of the alleged abuse, but is now pledging an overhaul of the team’s culture to ensure the workplace is “diverse, inclusive and respectful.”

How could this happen? How might such a toxic, hostile work environment – permeating all levels of the organization – be sustained for so long?

Let me play “Monday morning quarterback” and highlight crucial lessons for all employers.

Takeaway #1: Stop Harassment from the Get-Go

The women allege a severely hostile and poisoned or toxic work environment. They describe being propositioned by bosses, told to wear revealing clothing, and being subjected to sexual banter, texts and leering.

Any workplace so far off the rails has clearly failed to learn from the #MeToo movement, and needs clear, strong policies – acted on, not just shoved in a binder.

Workplace leaders need to make it clear that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated by anyone – no matter how “senior” or “important” they are – and follow through by having effective policies, training and messaging.

Understand what a hostile work environment is so you can prevent such behaviour. Hostile work environment sexual harassment (a term used in US law) includes conduct of a sexual nature directed at a person because of their sex. This conduct spans a spectrum of severity and can be:

  • Verbal: sexualized language, sounds, comments about people’s bodies or sex lives;
  • Visual: leering, sexual gestures, sending sexualized emails, texts, jokes, photos, videos; or,
  • Physical: grabbing, pinching, rubbing against someone’s body, sexual assault

In Ontario, and other Canadian jurisdictions, a court will make a finding of poisoned or toxic work environment where “serious wrongful behaviour sufficient to create a hostile or intolerable work environment is persistent or repeated.”

Takeaway #2: It Starts from the Top

The Washington Football Team scandal shows clearly how most employees fear reporting abuse and harassment, believing it could be a career-ender. That’s a totally reasonable concern given much of the misconduct at the WFT is alleged to have been carried out by senior execs.

One woman told the Washington Post employees were constantly reminded “there were 1,000 people out there who would take our job in a heartbeat.”

This points to a sick workplace culture that permeates the whole organization, and has allowed systemic discrimination to thrive.

Workplace leaders and managers should be setting the standard for appropriate conduct and a safe culture where reporting is expected and encouraged. They should set the example and have the moral – and legal – duty to prevent harassment, including reporting it up the chain when they become aware of allegations.

This includes establishing meaningful procedures to handle complaints and investigations that encourage those being harassed to bring a complaint without fear of reprisal. (Retaliation against those who report is also illegal.)

Takeaway #3: The Importance of Impartiality

Initially, the Washington team’s owner hired an investigator to probe the allegations.  But given his alleged role and amidst questions about the probe’s independence the NFL took over the investigation.

Independence is crucial. And perception matters. Sometimes allegations can be investigated “in-house.” However, an external third party is recommended where allegations are:

  • serious and cover a long time period;
  • are complex, involving multiple actors and victims;
  • involve against senior leaders that everyone knows; or
  • any situation where impartiality cannot be maintained (connections are too close, where the person instructing the investigators has a lot at stake in the outcome)

The Washington Football Team needs a new game plan. Executives are being called out – not just for the horrible alleged abuse – but the team’s owner is rightly being pilloried for his alleged actions, his failure to protect employees, and his response to the scandal.

Cleaning that up will take more than a new mascot.

Ready to make your organization safer with workplace sexual harassment training videos for employees? Sign up for a free demo now.

Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash