When I tell people I work in cybersecurity and sexual harassment policy, I usually get a pretty puzzled look in response. Grasping for overlap, some people hit on the matter of privacy (“Oh, like if someone is looking at your pictures or something?”), and I say yes, that’s part of it. Having gone through both, I know information security breaches and sexual assault have a lot in common. Feeling victimized, guilty, and ashamed as you try to figure out how it happened – how you let it happen. Fearing the damage to your reputation when word gets out. And, too often, defeated and powerless, we throw up our hands because “it’s inevitable” – a tack too many of us have taken, and that leaves us feeling more alone.
If nothing is secure, why bother changing behavior to be more safe? If you don’t feel valued and trusted by your employer, why take the risk in speaking up about the problems you encounter? In many ways, both cybersecurity problems and sexual harassment are two symptoms of a greater underlying cause: the systemic failure of collective responsibility due to lack of investment and engagement in our communities.
What makes sexual assault traumatizing is being stripped of agency, of control over what happens to your body, your person; it can feel the same when you lose control over your personal data. There is, however, a second traumatic element: the failure of an institution and its community to protect one of its own.
A company– or any other organization – is a collection of individuals who are working towards a common goal. No one lives or works in a vacuum; the actions of one person affect the circumstances of others. But at your office or on your commute it can be hard to see the community. People are absorbed in their phones, headphones in, focused on their own music or shows, focused on their own content. We build open plan offices to foster teamwork and communication, yet it drives everyone into their own isolated world to try to remain productive. Is it any wonder that we struggle to build strong, supportive cultures, bonding and connecting with one another, with building empathy and community?
Research shows that the most effective sexual harassment trainings are those focused around prevention through empowerment and, in particular, bystander intervention. These trainings give people the tools they need to be empowered to support and protect each other– and themselves. Similarly, in companies where employees are empowered to act and rewarded for identifying and reporting suspicious emails, security incident and breach rates go down. In short, when people understand their roles in the community, feel valued and cared for within it, and can rely on its leaders to uphold the policies and processes that maintain it, they are more likely to engage in that community, become invested and empowered, and foster that culture of caring and accountability in others.
Data breaches, harassment and assault, even employee burnout, are all related to our lack of investment in our communities. Good office snacks and Fun Events like field trips from the Culture Team are not the foundations of community. Values, authenticity and integrity, honesty and transparency, enablement and empowerment, and keeping the door open will show your employees you are committed to them – as individuals and as members of your corporate community – and not just your bottom line. No company can be absolutely sure to manage all risks all the time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Enlist the help of others, from consultants to community resources, to share the load. You as leaders need to listen to your crew and decide where to go. Let us be the experts; we’ll make sure to get you there.