Superstar Sexual Harassment Revelations Roil the Workplace

It’s been three months since the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment news broke, but the bombshell revelations involving big names keep on coming. From Charlie Rose to Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Peter Martins and too many others to mention, the superstar sexual harassment issue isn’t going away any time soon.

Comedian Seth Meyers captured the moment in his 2018 Golden Globes opening when he said, “Good evening ladies and remaining gentlemen.” And later, he broke up the audience in noting, “For men, tonight is the first time in three months it won’t be terrifying to hear your name announced.”

So it’s little wonder that the two most recent XpertHR podcasts take a deep dive into what organizations should do when a CEO, senior vice president or another high-level employee stands accused of sexual harassment. Why are so many claims coming to light now?

“There’s power in numbers,” says workplace trainer and employment attorney Allison West of the California-based Employment Practices Specialists. “People felt alone in the past, and now they are getting the backbone that they can stand up.”

In our conversation about superstar sexual harassment, West said companies need to be very strategic in how they handle claims against high-level executives.

“An outside independent person is the right person for investigating high-level executives,” West explains. “Don’t forget there’s a lot of intimidation and power – the HR person could be like, ‘Oh gosh, I report to this person,’ so you could not do the investigation of someone you report to.” She adds that sometimes the best move is to place these executives on leave while the investigation is ongoing.

EEOC Associate Legal Counsel Carol Miaskoff agrees there is no question people are very afraid of retribution. Speaking on our most recent podcast, Sexual Harassment Run Amok – A View From the EEOC, Miaskoff says the percentage of harassment victims who come forward is actually “very small.”

For instance, Miaskoff cites an EEOC Task Force Report revealing that only 8% of individuals who have been victimized by unwanted physical touching at work file a complaint. Even for sexual assault, Miaskoff says only about 30% file a formal complaint with the EEOC. Those numbers, though, pre-date the high-profile claims of the last few months.

“People in privileged positions often feel the basic rules don’t apply,” Miaskoff said, calling this mindset a huge risk factor for employers. Allison West agrees in noting, “If a manager is engaged in inappropriate conduct, that changes things dramatically because there is power there.”

Speaking of sexual harassment more generally, Miaskoff says other risk factors include:

  • Workforces with lots of really young workers (high school atmosphere);
  • Too much homogeneity (lack of diversity); and
  • A coarsened social discourse outside of work.

But there’s no question the tide may be turning. On the day the Harvey Weinstein story broke in early October 2017, Miaskoff notes that the total number of hits on the EEOC’s website was slightly more than 1,500 hits. Just 10 days later, there were nearly 8,000 hits on the site for sexual harassment information specifically, an increase which she calls “pretty striking.”

For her part, West says the most important word in the whole sexual harassment discussion is notice. “What puts you on notice? You have to listen in HR without judgment,” West notes. “The goal is stop the bad behavior and investigate. When you have notice, you’ve got to jump on it. There’s some cases that talk about how 24 hours is waiting too long.”

Some other key tips she offers during our discussion, in addition to reacting promptly, include:

  • Ensuring sexual harassment policies have a clear complaint procedure;
  • Applying policies both on and off site;
  • Setting the right tone for company culture at the top; and
  • Requiring that manager-subordinate romantic relationships be disclosed.

These sexual harassment podcasts and other podcasts on trending workplace issues are available for your listening pleasure on xperthr.com.

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