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Why Harvey Weinstein Got Away with Workplace Sexual Harassment for Decades

Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s crimes have exploded into the news over the past week.

Although his decades-long history of frequent sexual assault and harassment may seem like an extreme case, it nevertheless points to systemic failures that employers and HR in every field need to understand.

1. The Endurance of Sexual Harassment Across Industries

We’d like to believe that old-fashioned quid pro quo sexual harassment is a thing of the past: “You do this for me, and I’ll help your career.” Unfortunately, it’s still alive and well, in many work environments.

Christina Cauterucci writes for Slate:

“The casting couch may be unique to Hollywood, but the idea that sexually flattering aggressive men is the price women must pay for career success is present in every field. I know women who work in higher-ed fundraising who have to smile and submit when they’re too slow to slip away from big donors who are known for their lingering hugs and sloppy kisses on the cheek.”

“In Silicon Valley, women sit through their superiors’ suggestive rants about their open relationships and sexual proclivities. In broadcast news, they laugh politely when the chairman comments on their legs. For as long as women have been in the workforce, this has been their cost of earning a living alongside men.”

2. The Normalization of Predatory Behavior in the Workplace

Weinstein’s abuse followed a distinct pattern: identify a young actress or employee, have an assistant schedule a meeting at a hotel, invite her up to the room and demand sexual favors in exchange for a career boost. This pattern was carried out with the help of company employees.

Jenna Scherer writes for Rolling Stone:

“Weinstein’s actions appear to have been abetted and normalized by executives, assistants and producers in his employ. … Employees were complicit – some knowingly, some unwittingly.”

“Lauren O’Connor, who distributed a memo around the company addressing Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment and the ‘toxic environment for women at this company,’ told the Times that her boss tasked her with ‘having casting discussions with aspiring actresses after they had private appointments in his hotel room,’ and believed that she and fellow female employees were being used to facilitate liaisons with ‘vulnerable women who hope he will get them work.’”

3. The Failure of HR With Regards to Harvey Weinstein

“Why wasn’t it reported to HR?,” many people have asked. The Harvey Weinstein story is the latest to point to the ineffectiveness of traditional human resources management, and the failure of HR as a mechanism to protect employees when they need it most.

Ronan Farrow writes for The New Yorker:

“Several former Weinstein employees told me that the company’s human-resources department was utterly ineffective; one female executive described it as ‘a place where you went to when you didn’t want anything to get done. That was common knowledge across the board. Because everything funnelled back to Harvey.’ She described the department’s typical response to allegations of misconduct as, ‘This is his company. If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”

How can HR be expected to prioritize its employees over a powerful, intimidating company founder? This is a question the industry must continue to wrestle with.

4. The Power of Open Secrets

So, why wasn’t anything done about Harvey Weinstein until now? “It was an open secret,” seems to be the general consensus, meaning that it was vaguely understood and accepted that this is how Weinstein worked. The open secret bubbled to the top now and then, but never quite seemed to pop. Until now.

Megan Garber writes for The Atlantic:

“It is the stuff of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes and Floyd Mayweather and Mel Gibson and Bill Clinton and O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump and, until recently, of Harvey Weinstein: the whispered rumors.”

“The information that is everywhere and nowhere. The facts that hang in the air, not quite touching the ground. The open secret insinuates without declaring. It feeds on mistrust, and engenders it. Everyone knows that, the open secret says, savvily and cynically, before throwing up its hands.”

5. The Legal Entrapment of NDAs, Confidentiality Agreements and Payouts

Jodi Cantor and Megan Twohey write for The New York Times:

“Mr. Weinstein enforced a code of silence; employees of the Weinstein Company have contracts saying they will not criticize it or its leaders in a way that could harm its ‘business reputation’ or ‘any employee’s personal reputation,’ a recent document shows. And most of the women accepting payouts agreed to confidentiality clauses prohibiting them from speaking about the deals or the events that led to them.”

NDAs are commonplace in industries like media, publishing, advertising and entertainment.

But HR should rethink their use. We must be clear that while employees can’t spill trade secrets, they are within their rights to speak publicly about their experiences—especially when doing so will protect others and prevent horrific abuses from happening again and again.

The entertainment industry isn’t the only one with a problem. Read our recent reporting on Google and Uber.

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