Weinstein Trial: What Impact Will the Verdict Have in the Workplace?

 

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek February 25, 2020
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Weinstein verdict

This article was updated March 11 to reflect the sentence the judge imposed on Harvey Weinstein.

Disgraced former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was found guilty Feb. 24 of criminal sexual act and rape in the third degree. A judge sentenced him March 11 to 23 years in prison. He has been in New York state custody since the verdict was issued.

The criminal trial, which focused on two separate incidents in 2006 and 2013, is the culmination of dozens of accusations of wrongdoing at Weinstein's company. In 2017, reports by The New Yorker and The New York Times shone a klieg light on a workplace culture rife with allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior. 

The ensuing social media movements #MeToo and Time's Up demanded that employers closely examine their own workplaces. Similar allegations of sexual harassment at other companies followed, and by 2018, more than 200 men in positions of power around the country had been fired.

State legislators responded to the #MeToo challenge. They passed laws to require employers to train workers to recognize and prevent sexual harassment, and to regulate employers' use of nondisclosure agreements, which have been used to silence victims of harassment. They extended the statute of limitations for filing sexual-harassment claims in some states. And more attention is being given to the quality of the sexual-harassment-prevention training, such as by including bystander-intervention techniques and tailoring training differently for managers and other workers.

"[Employers] are shifting the focus of training away from being solely based on legal standards to one where professionalism and organizational values are the benchmarks for behavior," said Elizabeth Bille, J.D., SHRM-SCP, senior vice president of workplace culture at EverFi, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that offers training on harassment and discrimination prevention.


[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What are the different types of sexual harassment?]

And pop culture, as always, reflects society's concerns: The just-released movie "The Assistant" is about a day in the life of a young woman who becomes aware of sexual abuse at her organization and the complicity of those who protect the powerful perpetrator.

Impact of the Verdict 

With so many changes already taking place, what impact—if any—will the trial's outcome have on U.S. employers and workplace culture?

One thing the trial is doing, said Maya Raghu, is extending the conversation about workplace inequity. Raghu is director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. Her work includes litigation on women's economic security and equality, including equal pay and sex-based harassment.

"A lot of the legal changes that have happened have been focused on harassment. But the conversations that have been started as a result have not only been about harassment but the other forms of inequity in workplaces," Raghu noted. "Pay equity and sexual harassment are connected."

According to The Wall Street Journal, "management experts and executives say that harassment can be a direct side effect of a workplace that slights women on everything from pay to promotions, especially when the perception is that men run the show and women can't speak up."

Bille thinks a guilty verdict will reinforce the scrutiny of boards of directors, which are urging organizations to take harassment seriously, hold everyone accountable and impose meaningful consequences.

"Boards of directors are increasingly putting pressure [on their organizations] about this issue and are holding senior leaders accountable," she said. "They are asking, 'What are we doing to get this right?' Boards are particularly attuned to sexual harassment and misconduct generally."

Bille formerly served as general counsel for the Society for Human Resource Management and as legal and policy advisor to the vice chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She advised the commission regarding federal laws prohibiting harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

She cited the 2018 CEO Success study by PwC's consulting business Strategy& that found—for the first time in the 19 years it has conducted its annual study—more CEOs were dismissed for ethical lapses, including sexual indiscretions, than for financial performance or issues with their boards.

This is a response to boards of directors reacting to the public's demand that executives answer for ethical lapses, the report noted.

"The rise in these kinds of dismissals," the report said, "reflects several societal and governance trends, including more aggressive intervention by regulatory and law enforcement authorities, new pressures for accountability about sexual harassment and sexual assault brought about by the rise of the 'MeToo' movement, and the increasing propensity of boards of directors to adopt a zero-tolerance stance toward executive misconduct."

"Important changes have already been made," Raghu said, "and I think—especially for survivors and advocates [on their behalf]—there's no going back. People have shared their stories and demanded change. They're the ones driving this change."

Employers are being more transparent with employees around the reporting and handling of complaints filed, she added, and "demonstrating how they're holding employees and leaders accountable for their actions."

Noted Bille, "Absolute silence is not golden. A lack of information in how complaints have been handled in the workplace and simply saying 'We took care of it' can undermine whatever resolutions or closure the organization hopes to achieve. ... Saying nothing misses an enormous opportunity to demonstrate that they took action, that they mean what they say when they say harassment will not be tolerated, and to demonstrate there are consequences for harassment."

An employer can be transparent without divulging confidential personnel information, she pointed out.

"It's important to share something … maybe not about a particular complaint but … how they are handled in the aggregate. It demonstrates accountability, it builds trust, it encourages reporting, it preserves workplace culture, and it can help prevent bad behavior in the future."



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