USC Price School of Public Policy

Denhardt shares expertise on organizational culture at Capitol hearing on sexual harassment

February 14, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

Like many public and private institutions in recent months, the California state legislature is looking to make changes in response to the national spotlight on sexual harassment. USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Janet Denhardt participated in a Jan. 24 hearing of the joint Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment and Response, which has been tasked with reforming the legislature’s policies for handling sexual harassment allegations.

“I felt very honored to be part of the discussion on such an important issue,” Denhardt said. “I think the fact the legislature formed this bicameral committee is really significant. In the past, sexual harassment was not openly discussed. The formation of this committee is an important first step, and the committee will hold a series of hearings to learn more about the nature of the problem and explore different ways to address it.”

Culture change

Speaking first on the panel, held at the State Capitol building, Denhardt was asked to provide a basic introduction to the concept of organizational culture, how it’s formed and how it can be changed over time.

“I think the discussion that followed recognized that it wouldn’t be enough to change the rules, that it would take consistent and persistent steps to change the culture,” Denhardt said. “Sexual harassment has been prohibited a long time. If rules were enough, it wouldn’t still be a problem.”

She explained that culture is established slowly, collectively from unspoken agreements and assumptions of all members of an organization, learned through socialization, stories, symbols, jargon and statements of principle, and in response to external forces.

“This is not going to be a quick process,” Denhardt said. “It took a long time for these kinds of cultural norms to be put in place, and it’s going to take years to change them. But the only thing you can do is to start now and begin the process.”

Denhardt asserted that she hopes the subcommittee will not only streamline the reporting process for cases of sexual harassment and provide support for parties involved, but also work through some of the cultural issues and organizational norms they want to foster going forward.

Safe environment for all

She said her fear is that this is seen as a women’s issue — as the problem of a few people instead of an organizational-wide problem. But, from what she heard from the subcommittee, she’s encouraged that won’t be the case.

“This isn’t just about making the workplace safe for women,” Denhardt said. “It’s about making the workplace safe for everyone to promote trust and collaboration. If they can approach it in terms of promoting positive values around how people treat each other, that’s going to make the legislature a more effective and productive organization, and have the spin-off effect of also reducing abuses of power and sexual harassment.”

Denhardt received the invitation from Alf Brandt, senior counsel for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. The committee leadership recognized the need to address this issue from an organizational level.

“The joint Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response sought an academic who could identify best practices in changing a public agency’s culture on sexual harassment,” Brandt said. “Professor Denhardt had the experience and expertise that fit our needs perfectly.”

Brandt added that Denhardt’s comment that has drawn the most repeats by members and staff was, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast and policy for lunch.”

“I was very encouraged by the discussion of the committee,” Denhardt said. “It’s going to be a heavy lift, but I think people are there who understand this runs very deep, is historically based and that they’re going to need to work very hard to change the culture. This isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s making a better organization that can be productive and resilient.”