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How Companies Are Grappling with Sexual Harassment—From Firings to Oversight Panels

Companies take several approaches to protect workers

Three women sitting around a table looking at a laptop.

​Firings, forced resignations, independent investigations and HR-led oversight panels are some of the ways companies across the nation are dealing with revelations that their employees have engaged in sexual harassment.

Can these measures help to prevent future misconduct?

"There is very little empirical research on effective ways to prevent sexual harassment," said Lauren Edelman, professor of law and sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. "The best way to figure out what really works would be for companies to open up their complaint records to researchers and allow regular climate surveys of employees. It would then be possible to begin to understand more about what works and what doesn't."

Following the sexual harassment scandal at its Fox News division, 21st Century Fox recently struck a settlement with a shareholder that's intended to overhaul the workplace culture at the network. The company announced Nov. 27 that as part of the settlement it will create the Fox News Workplace Professionalism and Inclusion Council. It will include two HR executives at the company and four independent members, and will provide reports to the company's directors and publish its findings on the company's website.

21st Century Fox paid millions of dollars in severance to two of Fox News' most prominent figures after each faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment: $40 million to Roger Ailes, the former chairman who was ousted in 2016, and $25 million to Bill O'Reilly, the cable news show host who was forced out last spring.

Oversight committees can play an important role in assessing the culture at a company, said Pamela L. Wolf, legal analyst for Labor and Employment Law at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., whose parent company is headquartered in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. These committees can start by taking a confidential workforce survey to learn the extent to which sexual harassment is present at work.

"Many companies may be surprised to find out that conduct amounting to sexual harassment is more prevalent than imagined," Wolf said. "Much of this offensive conduct may go unreported because victims are embarrassed or fear they will be stigmatized or retaliated against. As policies and procedures are implemented to root out sexual harassment, follow-up workforce pulse surveys can be administered to determine the effectiveness of those measures and test the current cultural climate."

Sexual Harassment Training

While providing sexual harassment training is a no-brainer, Wolf said, companies must recognize that "workers don't always understand that conduct which goes unchallenged outside the workplace may be perceived as sexual harassment inside the workplace."

Examples of this are "repeatedly asking a co-worker or subordinate for dates, or constantly commenting on how 'hot' a co-worker looks," she said. "Make sure that training includes explicit examples of unacceptable versus acceptable conduct and that workers understand these differences. And managers and supervisors should be made aware that their conduct will be held to an even higher standard because of their ability to influence their employees' day-to-date work environment."

It's not uncommon for employees to be skeptical that such oversight panels will make a difference, said David Lewis, who for two decades has trained workers about sexual harassment as president of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn.

"These panels and committees often report to the same people that HR reports to. So why is this group going to achieve different results?" Lewis asked. "For some … this [may be viewed] as a PR [public relations] stunt designed to placate the masses and portray a level of concern. For others, though, this is a solid step in the right direction, provided they can address in a productive, honest and reasonable way how the complaints received are acted upon."

Sometimes, experts say, independent investigations by outside parties into sexual harassment are the way to go—in part because the investigators tend to be unbiased and are sometimes able to detect flaws in the harassment-reporting system that those inside the company don't recognize. After a former employee at Uber, the ride-hailing app company, revealed that she was the victim of sexual harassment, the company's CEO launched an independent investigation with the help of former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder. The CEO, Travis Kalanick, later resigned.

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"The process must reflect that sexual harassment allegations are taken seriously and investigated swiftly but thoroughly," Wolf said. "The process may include making sure that the complainant and the alleged harasser are not required to [have] contact with one another during the investigation. The employer should apprise the complainant of the progress of the investigation … [and] the results of the investigation should be communicated to the complainant. The company may want to consult with legal counsel to determine what the complainant should be told about the conclusion of the investigation, and what, if any, action has been taken."

Zero-Tolerance Policies

A little more than a day after an NBC employee accused "Today" show host Matt Lauer of sexual harassment, the network fired the leading anchor. The swift action surprised some, but Lewis said that's the sort of approach that sends a message.

"Zero tolerance to me means people get fired for crossing the line, even a little," he said, and that includes top people at an organization, no matter how much the company depends on them.

"The workforce can read memo after memo from the C-suite about prohibiting harassment, but the C-suite can only prevent harassment through true leadership by example," said John Alan Doran, a partner at Sherman & Howard in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Let's face it—there will always be [people] in the workforce [who sexually harass]. Institutions need to be ready to excise such individuals promptly regardless of the impact on the company's bottom line. Make an example of a harasser, and you will dramatically deter other potential harassers. Let a harasser off lightly, and you can expect even more harassment."

But even zero-tolerance policies may not be enough, said Debra Katz, a founding partner of Washington, D.C.-based Katz, Marshall & Banks LLP.

"Sexual harassment is fundamentally about abuse of power," she said. "It exists in large part because of the significant power imbalance between men and women in most workforces. In most companies, men—not women—hold top leadership positions. Unless companies have women in the C-suite and in other top positions in the company, a clear risk factor for sexual harassment exists. Women are reliant on men for pay, career advancement and even keeping their jobs. Companies can talk about zero-tolerance but the message will ring hollow until the workforce has better gender balance."  

After firing its own editorial director for sexual harassment last month, Vox Media announced to its staff that it will not have an open bar at this year's holiday party.

As explained in an invitation sent to Vox Media's New York City staff members, the reason for the change is to help curb any potential "unprofessional behavior."

The number of companies serving any alcohol at holiday parties this year is poised to drop dramatically compared to 2016, from 62 percent to 49.7 percent, according to a survey from Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

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