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3 Common Challenges that Explain Why Risk of Misconduct is High

Complicated and Challenging Scenarios are Common, Not Rare

Executives and administrators look to risk professionals and legal counsel to have proper protections in place.

HR is supposed to do their part to make sure training is done at least annually. Compliance needs to be met.

But besides the steps we take and the trainings required, we each have a basic assumption about what the risk really is or isn’t of certain problems happening “here.”

The issues of sexual harassment, assault, domestic violence and other types of mistreatment are confusing. They’re not easy to understand and cannot be understood by conventional wisdom.

That’s why with all of the noise and confusion it is natural for people to not think about these issues very much. When most people do think of them, it’s normal to fill in gaps of understanding with assumptions.

It would be natural to think things like –

“We try to hire the right people, and I think we do a pretty good job of it. I’m not too concerned.”

“Sure, we could improve. But it’s a pretty good culture here. These are good people.”

I mean, look at them. They’re smiling. Most of the are even well-dressed.

“That #MeToo stuff is a big mess. I’m sure some bad things happen, but we have our policies in place against bad behavior. We tell them we have no tolerance for harassment here. And I can’t picture anyone here acting like that.”

“Everybody here is pretty good. These are good guys. Some knuckleheads, yeah, but nobody that would do something like that.”

After developing prevention training programs for several years, I started to notice that smart and decent people were operating as if the risk of something seriously bad happening is quite low.

I understand. We all need to get some sleep at night. But it seemed deeper than that. It seemed like leaders overseeing thousands of people felt quite comfortable with the assumption that they do not have a significant risk of bad actions among their ranks.

I like to not rely on statistics to make a point. Without using any statistics or even getting into the psychology of how people can rationalize unethical behavior, there is a very simple way to understand why risk is often higher than many people assume.

There are three challenges that most people will face at some point. And all your people will deal with at least one of these.

The reason problematic behavior is not rare is because complicated social situations are not rare. And human beings are not great at handling complex social situations.

That’s why risk is often higher than many people assume. These three challenges are tricky.


Conflict and Differences

Managing conflict (and even basic differences) takes a combination of personal standards and advanced skills. When conflict occurs in any relationship, it evokes strong emotions within one or both people that make it much more difficult to act as we imagine we would. Even low-level negative responses can be hurtful and create adversarial relationships that are costly.



Humans get attracted to other humans. Managing the social dynamics of attraction toward a co-worker (or customer) requires judgment and social skills that are not obvious to everyone. What about one-sided attraction? What about mutual attraction? Even mutual attraction presents its own set of challenges for how each person is going to handle themselves and interact with the other. Do relationships always end well? Do we all handle ourselves nobly and with great maturity with our smartphones and indirect actions when feeling hurt or angry at an ex? A person could be non-violent and still rationalize violating or inappropriate actions. This is an area where fearing a lawsuit is only one thing to fear, and often not the biggest problem. Many leaders will never hear about wrong behavior, but costly turnover can occur, and even very serious harm can be committed under your organization's name that may never be reported but will cause human harm and costly ripple effects.


Someone Else's Behavior

What is and isn't a big deal? What crosses the line? Which line? Recognizing inappropriate actions by a co-worker or friend is not as simple as a lot of training makes it out to be. Our human brain tends to have blind spots when it comes to people we know and like, and we tend to minimize the seriousness of the words and actions of people in our own social circle. It takes a high level of discernment to recognize less-extreme, but still serious, inappropriate behavior. And it takes another level of skill and a certain mindset to realistically know how to do something to help. Inspiring people to say they would intervene in a horrible situation is easy to accomplish, but realistic preparation for real-world, more nuanced situations requires a more sophisticated approach. Expecting your people to handle complicated social scenarios without proactive, realistic training (and "realistic" must be confirmed by them) is rolling the dice.

Within these three categories, there are countless types of scenarios your people could face.

Insurance companies and legal counsel advise leaders to update their policies and to provide training. But what does “training” mean?

Written policies and traditional training on sexual harassment and abusive behaviors are not very powerful in proactively preparing people for the complexity of interpersonal interactions.

When training is treated as informing, it fails. And training is usually treated as informing.

Informing people about policies, sharing statistics and facts about issues, and reiterating the rules may be an intuitive approach, but it does not account for the complexities of human behavior and decision-making.

The complexity of real-world situations calls for an approach to training that is as sophisticated as the problems are complex.

You can work to optimize the effectiveness of your system of training and messaging on your own, or we can help you. But the motivation and urgency to do so can start with the simple notion that these three areas of challenge are predictable. It is virtually guaranteed that your people will face one or more of them. And we also know that human beings struggle to always handle these challenges appropriately.

People need training that connects, feels relevant, and effectively prepares them for the predictable challenges they will face.

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