Sexual harassment in workplaces: Lessons from Harvey Weinstein scandal – by Frank Ofili39 views
In the last couple of days, global media has been awash with reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape against women by Harvey Weinstein. Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times first broke the news on October 5, 2017. The story accused Weinstein of three decades of sexually harassing and paying eight settlements to actresses and female Miramax and Weinstein Company production assistants, and other temporary employees.
Since the story broke, more than 60 women in the film industry have subsequently accused Weinstein of the same or similar offences, although Weinstein himself has denied “any non-consensual sex.” A global hash tag proclaiming #MeToo has since surfaced with personal stories pouring in from women in all industries across the world. The hashtag has become a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment.
Media coverage of the stories reveal a consistent and persistent pattern of sexual harassment against women by Weinstein. For many of the victims, it is either you submit to Weinstein’s sexual overtures or you are denied movie role. What is curious is that most of the victims were reluctant to report the abuses.
Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, and later founder of The Weinstein Company, is one of Hollywood’s most powerful movie producers. Shortly after the news broke, he was fired from his company, The Weinstein Company, and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other professional associations. Criminal investigations into complaints from at least six women have commenced against him in Los Angeles, New York, and London.
While the investigations are ongoing, the questions to ask, as human resource (HR) professionals are double-fold. The first is: why do victims of sexual harassment (mostly women) refrain from reporting it? The second question – what are the lessons for HR? – is even more pertinent to the understanding of the first question.
Sexual harassment, even though in varying degrees across cultures, is widespread in workplaces around the world, yet speaking up about it is not. What possible reasons are responsible for not reporting sexual harassment in workplaces? Harvard Business Review (HBR) in its October 4, 2016, edition identified three possible reasons quoted here in parts:
Fear of reprisals or retaliation: Many women do not report harassment against themselves or others because of fear of reprisals or retaliation by the harasser or organization.
The Bystander Effect: Another reason individuals may fail to speak out against sexual harassment according to HBR, is something called the bystander effect, which says that we are less likely to help a victim when others are also present. The bystander effect occurs for two reasons: diffusion of responsibility (if others are present, someone feels that other observers are responsible for intervening) and social influence (bystanders observe others’ behaviour to determine the correct behaviour; so if no one is intervening then that seems to be the correct behaviour, as people abide by the status quo). This can even give the appearance that the behaviour is condoned by observers.
Masculine culture: A third factor that may reduce the likelihood of reporting sexual harassment is a highly male-dominated organization and/or highly masculine culture. In very masculine work cultures, some men use the subjugation of women as a way to relate to other men and prove their masculinity, while reinforcing women’s lower status. At the same time, women who want to be part of the high-status group may play along with sexual harassment because they do not want to be further alienated from the high-status group (men). Women may even start to adopt the same behaviors as men to fit in and be “one of the guys.” This creates an irony that women may be ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment to gain access to the “boys’ club” while men are using sexual harassment to keep women out.
What are the lessons for HR practitioners?
The main lessons that all HR practitioners and indeed employers can take away from the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal is that it is not enough to have company policies against harassment of any kind. Organizational leaders need to give human resource departments full support and indeed take more responsibility to instilling a zero-tolerance culture. Bottom line is that everyone, including even the board, need to take real action so that everyone knows that harassment simply is not permitted.
A mechanism where people who are experiencing harassment can come forward without fear of reprisals or retaliation should also be put in place. Merely having a written-down policy against harassment is not sufficient. There has to be a system that protects the victim especially if accusations are made against a person in a powerful position such as Mr. Weinstein.
HR practitioners, organizational leaders and even employees themselves also need additional training about what constitutes sexual harassment and what they should do if it does occur. Company HR policies should include that reporting harassment is part of employee obligations to the company; and that not reporting it is itself a misconduct which is actually encouraging the abusive behaviour.
Finally, appropriate deterrence rules must be put in place even to the point of including prosecution