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INSIGHT

Why do some get away with sexual harassment?

By Lynne Curry  bio

Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly. Uber executives. And maybe someone you know. How can these men not “get it?” How do they get away with sexually harassing those who work for them? And if you’re a practice administrator or HR officer, how do you protect your company, and your and your company’s reputation?

First, these men didn’t have to “get it.” They faced no consequences. Here’s why:

The CEO/”star” exemption

More than 30 women accused the 65-year old Weinstein of harassment. His sexual misconduct, including rape allegations, constituted an open secret, publicly joked about during the 2013 Oscars. Dozens of Weinstein’s employees, including top executives, knew personally or anecdotally of Weinstein’s conduct.

Who, however, could take on Weinstein, who owned his own company? One accuser described the balance of power as “me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.” Further, Weinstein enforced a code of silence, requiring that employees sign contacts that they would not criticize the company or its leaders in a way that could harm his reputation.

Similarly, Bill Cosby allegedly is a serial abuser who sexually assaulted women across many years and cities. When a woman protested or sued, he and his attorneys lashed out against her with denials and defamation lawsuits. Said several of the more than 50 women who accused the world famous and beloved Cosby as long ago as 1969, “Who would believe me?”

And which of Ailes’ more than 20 accusers could survive the career-crushing consequences for taking on Fox News’ chief executive officer or its star, Bill O’Reilly?

No monetary consequences

Fox News paid the women who accused Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly millions of dollars, even as they paid Ailes and O’Reilly millions in compensation. Weinstein’s company settled eight lawsuits to protect him. Did harassment cost Ailes, O’Reilly or Weinstein? Not until the end.

Cover up

Four months after an Uber engineer alleged that Uber’s human-resources team systematically ignored sexual harassment complaints, external attorneys investigated 215 separate sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation and bias cases. The result—the company fired 20 employees, issued “final warnings” to another seven and gave 31 others remedial training.

When Fox and Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson complained to her supervisor about her co-host, Ailes called her a “man hater” and demoted her. Although many at Fox knew Ailes frequently made inappropriate sexually-laden remarks, Fox’s culture of fear prevented others from coming forward.

Who, after all, can stand for the woman—or man—protesting a senior executive’s harassment? Not the HR officer several power rungs lower than the executive.

Rationalization

Those accused appear to shed their victim’s discomfort and accusations like a snake sheds its skin. Weinstein reportedly told the women he harassed “this is how it’s done in Hollywood.” He told others his interactions had been consensual. When he finally asked Hollywood stars to protest his firing, he rationalized that he’d grown up in the Sixties. In a televised interview he offered the excuse that “everyone makes mistakes.”

Similarly, board members and investors rationalize harassers’ actions, citing the bottom-line results senior executives accused of harassment bring to their companies. Weinstein’s 2015 contract offered a “cure” for sexual misconduct, specifying the damages he needed to pay for the first, second, third and subsequent incidents, as long as he reimbursed his company for settlements or judgments.

What brings them down?

Comedian Hannibal Buress kindled the media firestorm that brought down Bill Cosby when a clip of his jokes went viral, leading dozens of victims to publicly accuse Cosby of assault.

Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s 2,910 word blog post detailing sexism and harassment triggered the investigation that led to the termination of 20 employees and three executives, including Uber’s CEO, when it went viral.

It took a lawsuit to end Roger Ailes’ 20-year reign. Carlson prevailed in her lawsuit in part because she secretly recorded Ailes saying he thought she and he should have a sexual relationship and because her lawyer sued Ailes personally and not Fox News. Ultimately more than two dozen women accused Ailes of sexual harassment and spoke out against Fox News’ culture of misogyny and hush money.

A media firestorm and advertisers’ abandonment of his shows led Fox News’ executives to withdraw support from O’Reilly.

How can you protect your company and your and your company’s reputation?

The secret’s out. Those who have had immunity lost it with Cosby, Weinstein, Ailes and Uber. If you’re a practice manager or in HR, simply print the last several months of media reports and ask your Board members, investors or senior executives if they want your practice on the front page or destroyed. Ultimately, serial abusers can be brought down.


Editor’s picks:

8 Traps to Avoid When Investigating a Sexual Harassment Complaint


How cultural differences complicate sexual harassment issues


Five dangers in dealing with harassment complaints



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