By Vanessa Fuhrmans and Rachel Feintzeig
Updated Dec. 20, 2017 11:10 a.m. ET
As companies pay more attention to the role of power in sexual harassment, few people are rethinking their interactions more than the most powerful person in the office.
Take David Steinberg, the chief executive of marketing-tech firm Zeta Global, one of several companies he has led. On a visit last month to the San Francisco offices of a newly acquired startup, Disqus, several employees asked to take selfies with him.
In selfies with women, the entrepreneur says, he consciously refrained from putting his arm around them—even though in photos that would be a natural action for him. “It was not about me being worried about getting in trouble—I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable,” Mr. Steinberg said.
Across corner offices and executive suites, CEOs are confronting the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the workplace after a barrage of allegations against dozens of powerful men. Some CEOs say the many personal stories of women, and some men, describing disrespect, intimidation and even assault at work have reawakened them to the lopsided power dynamics of their own workplace relationships and the outsize influence of their words and actions on employees.
Many corporate leaders are re-examining how they engage with colleagues and staff. In some instances, they are taking more precautions with physical contact or closed-door meetings. In others, they are more forcefully calling out questionable behavior when they see it.
Their shift in behavior is manifesting itself in ways big and small. United Continental Holdings Inc. CEO Oscar Munoz recently met with a women’s resources group at the airline; he signed a letter to workers about sexual harassment, “Humbly, Oscar.” At Fidelity Investments, CEO Abigail Johnson moved her office from the executive suite to a different floor where portfolio managers and traders sit after two mutual fund managers were accused of misconduct.
Patrick Quinlan, CEO of ethics-and-compliance software firm Convercent Inc., says he has sought to intervene immediately—and openly—if a colleague says or does something that might make others uncomfortable. This month, when one employee used a gender-specific slur to voice frustration at a meeting, he didn’t wait until afterward to privately coach the person, as he once did. “I said, ‘I think you should rethink that sentence, and if you could rephrase it, I’d appreciate it,’ ” he said.
A self-professed hugger by nature, Mr. Quinlan said he doesn’t want to treat female employees differently by avoiding all physical contact with them. But he said he has become attuned to waiting for cues before doing so. “If they start with an embrace, then I’ll embrace,” he said. “But it’s not the person of power making the choice.”
Still, anxiety persists among some business leaders about where to draw the line between collegial friendliness and potentially uncomfortable behavior. Kim Scott, an executive coach and former Google executive, said one client has become sensitive to approaching a woman from behind while she is at her desk. A few others said they now make sure the door is open during one-on-one meetings with female colleagues.
Ms. Scott has counseled a few men not to overreact. “I tell them if it’s a private conversation, then have a closed door,” said Ms. Scott, whose recent book “Radical Candor” discusses how to have honest conversations at work.
The mood at companies right now is one of “extreme paranoia,” said Aaron Goldstein, an attorney with Dorsey & Whitney LLP who represents employers on labor issues. Some employees have told him they will no longer be alone in the room with a person of the opposite sex, he says. One executive said he wouldn’t hire any more men until the company had a certain number of women, which Mr. Goldstein informed him was just as illegal as refraining from hiring women.
“We’re in the midst of extremely rapidly changing social norms,” Mr. Goldstein said. “What’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable…what will get you in trouble; what won’t.”
Some CEOs worry that anxiety could prompt men to pull back too much, reducing women’s influence and even compromising business should diversity erode.
Mohamad Ali, the CEO of backup-software maker Carbonite Inc., said that while he knows some CEOs have reverted to shaking hands in lieu of hugging, he doesn’t want to go that route. He has always been careful to keep his hugs appropriate, he said, and these days is especially aware of respecting a colleague’s personal space.
“There’s like a way to hug,” Mr. Ali said. “You don’t hug too tight. You keep your hugs at shoulder level.”
Among women CEOs, some say the public conversation around sexual harassment has colored their interactions with men. Sophie Bellon, chairwoman of global food-services and facilities-management company Sodexo SA, recalled how, at a recent gala in New York, a businessman quipped about making sure not to touch her as they posed for a picture.
“I think the majority of men are behaving the right way and they want to make sure that women know that,” Ms. Bellon said.
Christa Quarles, CEO of restaurant-booking site OpenTable Inc., said she has been trying to foster conversations at work about sexual misconduct. She estimates she has talked to more than 10 men inside and outside the company about the topic in recent weeks, including a few executives who have asked her for guidance.
“The male CEOs are looking and say, ‘Help me be sensitive. Help me find the right words.’ ” she said. “I think it is scary for men right now.”