Recent sexual harassment allegations against male corporate executives, celebrities, and politicians have been alarming, sobering, and, presuming their accuracy, long overdue. While it is startling for us to see familiar industry figures with tremendous responsibilities and reputations suddenly diminished by these allegations, we also understand that the power they wielded enabled them to build an environment of near-perfect impunity in the workplace. Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly at Fox News, Travis Kalanick at Uber, or Mike Cagney at SoFi, we see a pattern of workplace tolerance for intolerable behavior, where associates of the perpetrators—at times even unwittingly—facilitated a culture that kept victims terrorized, confused, and powerless for the sake of protecting their leaders from any public blemish.
From an HR standpoint, this is the most troubling part of these allegations: the victims had no recourse within the workplace at the time they occurred. Female and male victims had to wait years for a news cycle that would give them safety in numbers, whether through the #MeToo movement on social media or exposés in major news outlets like the New York Times. It is unconscionable that women and men could not rely on their workplaces for protection and justice.
While individuals are obviously at fault, structural problems are also to blame. In the case of Charlie Rose, for example, it is telling that all of the allegations stem from his time with PBS, not CBS. One of the key differences in the two work environments is that—in the case of Rose’s interview program syndicated on PBS and sponsored by Bloomberg Television—Rose himself owned the program outright. He kept a very small staff over which he had absolute control and consequently, as the Washington Post reported, “The employees worked for Charlie Rose Inc., and not Bloomberg LP or PBS, which said they did not provide human resources support for the show.”
It is unlikely that Rose dispensed with HR support for budgetary reasons, given his success as a broadcaster. But whatever the reason behind this lack of oversight, it produced a workplace in which there was literally nowhere for victims to go in order to report misconduct. His long-time executive producer Yvette Vega was likely far too close to Rose personally in order to be a reliable enforcer of parity and safety in the workplace. She appears to be genuinely contrite at this point, but as one victim reports, she once dismissed a complaint against Rose as just “Charlie being Charlie,” a minimizing response that essentially tells the victim and her coworkers to tolerate harassment.
Vega’s third-party role in enabling Rose also demonstrates the need for sexual harassment training that goes beyond the mere identification of harasser and victim. Too often, this exclusively dichotomous focus overlooks the opportunities for leaders and other bystanders in the workplace to intervene and encourage a culture of intolerance toward unacceptable sexual behavior. Current by-the- numbers training can also omit models of civility that recognize the importance of cultivating genuine kindness and compassion in the workplace. Claire Cain Miller claims in a recent New York Times article that this pro forma training, intended only to satisfy legal compliance, can act as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, in which identification of harasser and victim inscribes more deeply those two positions, leading to a sense of inevitability toward the problem among employees.
Beyond insufficient training, this sense of inevitability is also reinforced by the frequent resistance to harassment claims within an organization’s HR department. Employees can’t be expected to take action against witnessed and experienced harassment if their HR representatives do not encourage, reward, and fully investigate complaints. Leadership’s fear of liability can too often resonate throughout all departments, resulting in the discouragement or discounting of claims. A 2016 EEOC study reported that victims—rather than take formal action—will more likely avoid harassers and confide only in friends and family outside the workplace. Without a culture of encouragement, employees lose trust in the meaningfulness of their complaints; they anticipate retaliation against their actions more than they expect justice.
It is difficult to imagine a future climate in which disgraced public figures can find another job suitable to their talents, and for many people, this is justice served; the cost to traumatized victims of sexual harassment is incalculable, demanding some form of appropriate redress. What became an “open secret”—a workplace injustice allowed to fester—eventually destroyed the leadership of multiple organizations, leading to internal disruption, and, in the case of Charlie Rose Inc., the entire dissolution of an organization. While this is a sensational example of what can happen to a confined workplace without responsive HR resources devoted to eradicating sexual harassment, there should be no doubt that this scenario plays out repeatedly across industries in organizations that do not provide enough reliable recourse, appropriate training, and sufficient clarity surrounding harassment issues. Large businesses find they cannot function fairly and successfully without proactive HR departments, but even smaller businesses with smaller work forces should consider outsourcing HR services for an impartial reality check with regard to the well-being of their workforce. Proximity to a problem can often make even the most conscientious managers inured to the toxicity and destructiveness of unaddressed misconduct.
TGC offers a Respectful Workplace training workshop that addresses the commonly overlooked issues of sexual harassment described in this article, including the identification and fostering of workplace cultures that discourage disrespect and encourage civility and genuine kindness. The workshop uses a varied and interactive model to ensure that participants leave with a clear definition of a respectful workplace and its characteristics, as well as an understanding of its integral value to all aspects of their organization. For more information on all our training courses please review our Services page and scroll down for course descriptions or contact us directly here.