Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Greetings from Barcelona. Perhaps it’s the time diference and it’s still early in the U.S. but for the first time in days I haven’t been overwhelmed with text messages from news outlets about another senator, congressman, policial candidate, actor, talk show host, porn star, or other public figure being accused of sexual harassment by multiple women.
I spent twenty years in the employment law field investigating and defending harassment claims both as outside counsel and in house. None of what I’m hearing now surprises me. I am surprised by some of the jaw dropping settlement amounts for some single-plaintiff cases.
I agree with the sentiments in this recent NPR story. Sexual harassment training often fails because employees believe it’s a check the box exercise, especially, I would imagine in states like California where it’s mandatory for certain employers every two years. More important, it fails because until now, very few men in power paid any consequences for their actions. Dov Charney of American Apparel was a notable exception of a CEO who cost the company so much in settlements that the board had to oust him.
When I conducted training, I told employees that if they didn’t want someone saying or doing the same thing to their wife, sister, or daughter as they were about to say or do in the workplace then they should know it’s wrong. That common sense lecture took about 5 minutes in training that usually lasted a few hours (covering other kinds of harassment and discrimination as well).
Unconscionable behavior will persist, however, as long as companies turn a blind eye to it. In the current environment, that will be nearly impossible. Companies are now terminating contracts with accused public figures even before they have had a chance to do a thorough investigation and even when the accused denies the wrongdoing.
Companies lose talented women or potential recruits because of perceptions of a culture that ignores harassment and discrimination. They pay astronomical settlements because they choose to retain superstars who repeatedly violated company policy and/or the law. Boards and shareholders must therefore pay closer attention to what has always been but is now becoming a steep financial, and more important, high human capital cost.