An organization’s culture determines how people behave in the organization, and how people behave in youth-serving organizations determines how safe children are from sexual abuse. As a result, a positive sexual abuse protection culture is essential to keep children as safe as possible from sexual abuse.
Every organization has a culture. They are a mix of attributes, beliefs, values, expectations, assumptions, experiences, and interaction methods that emerge naturally, even if no deliberate action is taken.
Developing a positive culture takes effort, and orienting it in a particular direction takes more effort. Most cultures are oriented toward supporting the achievement of an organization’s purpose.
Culture must also be oriented to accommodate stakeholder concerns and expectations. Sometimes these concerns or expectations are at odds with, or at least less than perfectly aligned with, the organization’s leadership’s view of its purpose. As a result, balancing stakeholder concerns and expectations with leaders’ views can be challenging.
For example, keeping children safe from sexual abuse is always essential. For some stakeholders, however, sexual abuse prevention is their only concern, whereas for an organization’s leaders, keeping children safe may be a secondary objective behind the organization’s primary purpose of, for example, educating, healing, or coaching children. Further, an organization’s leaders may consider that protecting their organization from the consequences of failing to prevent sexual abuse is almost as crucial as preventing sexual abuse in the first place because an organization cannot educate, heal, or coach if sexual abuse shuts it down. Some stakeholders feel, however, that organizations should have no protection if they fail to prevent sexual abuse.
So, given how vital purpose, stakeholders, and child protection all are, how do you establish and maintain a positive organizational culture that appropriately aligns these and other elements?
In short, the answer is to combine the leadership of your organization with a best practice sexual abuse risk management system and the reliable information the leaders need to be able to make the most of the system. This combination is important because practices become part of a culture – “the way things are done around here” – by repetition; systems, which must be led and informed by reliable information, enable the thoughtful, engaged, and well-informed repetition of practices that then become “how things are done here.” The combination enables a sexual abuse protection-oriented organizational culture.
But what does this mean in practice?
10 Considerations to Align a Sexual Abuse Protection Culture
Every organization’s culture is different, but the cultures of high-performing organizations consistently reflect similar considerations. The first three of the ten considerations described below outline the foundation of a sexual abuse protection-oriented organizational culture; the next seven describe important practices that are supported by the foundation.
When team members see their leaders genuinely engaged with and living your culture, they follow suit.
Leadership’s most important role is to ensure everyone involved with the organization understands:
- the importance of sexual abuse and a sexual abuse protection-oriented organizational culture,
- the role of a sexual abuse risk management system in supporting a positive sexual abuse protection-oriented culture, and
- each individual’s role in maintaining and improving the system.
In addition, your most senior leadership – your board or owner – should:
- be involved in determining the principles that will govern how you will manage sexual abuse risk,
- approve your sexual abuse risk management system, and
- receive regular reports on how your system is evolving and constantly improving.
Your CEO and senior management team should ensure they establish performance, accountability, and appreciation mechanisms that promote positive behaviors from everyone involved with your organization and hold people accountable if they fail to adhere to them.
A Sexual Abuse Risk Management System
A sexual abuse risk management system based on risk management best practices will enable an organization to:
- Understand its sexual abuse risks
- Be confident in choosing appropriate sexual abuse controls and activities and
- Manage its sexual abuse risk so that it prevents sexual abuse as effectively as possible and protects the organization and the people associated with it as comprehensively as possible.
A systematic approach is so valuable to establishing and maintaining a culture that understands the importance of sexual abuse protection because a systematic approach reinforces the leaders’ messages. A systematic approach means inputs, processes, outputs, feedback, and controls are seen and performed regularly, and everyone can see and is involved with performing them regularly.
Your organization likely doesn’t employ risk management experts, so to make the most of your risk management best practice system, you will need access to the information you and everyone associated with the organization can trust will help your organization optimize its system.
Visit Our Service and review Resource 1 to see how the SAM Risk BOK delivers this information.
As noted above, there must be alignment between your organization’s values, vision, purpose, objectives, and sexual abuse-related objectives. To achieve this, your senior management team should be involved in:
- Overseeing a sexual abuse risk assessment to understand where, how, and to whom minors and vulnerable adults in your organization’s care are potentially most vulnerable to sexual abuse and to understand your organization’s most significant sexual abuse risks,
- Determining the principles that will act as the guiding north star for all your sexual abuse-related decisions, and
- Consulting with your organization’s most important stakeholders to ensure their concerns and expectations are considered in your sexual abuse risk management system design,
…so you can customize your sexual abuse risk management system, thoughtfully considering alignment as a core system design objective.
From Before Day 1
It is well known that hiring for culture is an effective way to build and maintain a strong positive culture. It is also worth remembering that you don’t have to wait for the first day a new hire, volunteer, or contractor starts working with your organization to let them know how important sexual abuse is to your organization.
Your full intake process, for example, from establishing a selection panel, crafting job and person specifications, and advertising the role, should let anyone even considering applying for a role with your organization know that sexual abuse is something you take extremely seriously. An intake process has both attracting and deterring objectives.
A Personalized Experience
As modern consumers, we all expect personalized experiences. Unfortunately, most sexual abuse-related training is generic; thousands of organizations use the same training, however different their organizations are.
This is somewhat understandable, given sexual abuse has common traits across sectors and organizations. Further, keeping up to date with best practices is essential, so externally developed training materials are important. But the less abstract and more practical a lesson or requirement, the easier it is to understand and apply.
So, for sexual abuse-related training to be as effective as possible, it must combine the best information from outside the organization with everything you learn about your sexual abuse risk and how you manage it. This enables you to customize both your controls and training about your controls to your organization.
Teamwork is foundational for both organizational performance and sexual abuse protection. Both require effective collaboration, communication, and respect between team members.
Teamwork applies through the spine of your organization. Your Board, senior management, and every employee, volunteer, or contractor should be aware of the importance of sexual abuse to your organization and how everyone has a role to play in ensuring effective sexual abuse protection.
Teamwork also applies across your organization, in the form of a cross-team sexual abuse risk group. What you call the group is less important than that there is a group within your organization that brings together people from all the main operating areas of your organization to support the individual with overall responsibility for managing sexual abuse risk – your sexual abuse risk manager.
This sexual abuse risk group is the central coordinating mechanism of your sexual abuse risk management system and all its activities. They perform the regular activities that ensure your assessment and customization always remain aligned over the long term and ensure information is communicated consistently and in a timely way across your organization.
Learning and Improvement
Systems for learning and constantly improving are essential given that sexual abuse is rising and the costs of failing to prevent sexual abuse are increasing.
It’s not exciting, but unless you are conscientious about keeping good records of your sexual abuse-related decisions and actions, you cannot learn and improve.
An internal audit will also tell you if you are doing everything you planned to do and whether you are doing those things as intended. It will also confirm that your record-keeping is accurate and, therefore, reliable for learning and improving.
You should also implement a process to seek out change that may need accommodating, along with a process to ensure the possibility of needing to adapt is considered. You should also ensure that change decisions are recorded so that in (say) five years’ time, when everyone on your sexual abuse risk group has changed, you will still understand why you changed whatever you changed and whether, therefore, the change is still appropriate.
Accountability and Appreciation
Accountability and appreciation means people know what is expected of them, that they are recognized and appreciated when they meet those expectations and held accountable if not.
For everyone associated with the organization, this means making sure everyone knows what behaviors are expected of them all the time and what behaviors are required at certain key times, such as when sexual abuse is suspected and some form of incident response is required. It also means ensuring there are systematic mechanisms in place to observe behaviors and respond appropriately and consistently when either positive or negative behaviors occur.
For the sexual abuse risk group, it means implementing systematic mechanisms that not only monitor current behavior expectations and requirements but also ensure they are regularly reviewed and adapted as necessary.
Decisiveness is a critical element of sexual abuse risk management. For example, decisiveness impacts the cognitive bias that can be most harmful in sexual abuse protection terms; the inability to believe that someone you know, work with, and otherwise trust could sexually abuse a child despite clear signs leading to the contrary. This bias too often leads to delayed reporting of suspicions of abuse, prolonged abuse, and significant additional harm to both victims and organizations.
The outcome of the seven considerations outlined above – implemented thoughtfully and consistently – is to deliver the psychological safety that everyone in your organization needs to be decisive.
Psychological safety operates at the team, not individual level. When an organization creates a culture where everyone feels both psychologically safe and understands the importance of their role in sexual abuse protection, the resulting decisiveness optimizes sexual abuse protection for children and the organization.