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EEOC report on sexual harassment shows companies often overlook leaders’ wrongdoing
In the space of a few weeks this summer, America learned from the federal government that training isn't doing much to prevent harassment at work, and then learned that Fox News founder Roger Ailes was resigning because he allegedly participated in, and presided over, a culture of repeated sexual harassment.
An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) task force concluded in a June 2016 report that, 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court held that workplace harassment was an actionable form of discrimination prohibited by federal law, "we have come a far way since that day, but sadly and too often still have far to go."
And 30 years after that ruling, people in powerful positions are still being accused of subjecting workers to inappropriate—sometimes illegal—sexual advances. Among them are former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Idaho state Sen. John McGee and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain.
Now add to that list Ailes, who resigned this summer after more than two dozen women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment.
"Much of the [harassment] training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool—it's been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability," two EEOC commissioners wrote in the "Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace" report.
When Training Doesn't Work Organizations collectively spend many billions of dollars a year on employment training, including training to prevent sexual harassment. Why, despite that investment, has training "not worked," according to the EEOC?
Karen Kruse, an employment law attorney in Seattle, said the EEOC report singles out certain characteristics that can put a workplace at risk for harassment.
These risk factors "might raise red flags for an employer about an increased likelihood of harassing behaviors," Kruse said. "In the Ailes case, at least two of those risk factors appear to have been present."
One risk factor, she said, was that the harassment was perpetrated by what the EEOC report calls a "high value" employee. Ailes was CEO of Fox News and was close with 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch. Ailes "made the Murdochs a lot of money," according to a September article in New York magazine. "Fox News generates more than $1 billion annually, which accounts for 20 percent of 21st Century Fox's profits—and Rupert worried that perhaps only Ailes could run the network so successfully."
After former "Fox & Friends" anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit in July claiming Ailes had sexually harassed her, "Rupert's first instinct was to protect Ailes, who had worked for him for two decades," according to New York magazine, which noted that Murdoch "can be extremely loyal to executives who run his companies, even when they cross the line."
The second risk factor, Kruse said, was that the harassment was perpetrated by someone who had significantly more power than his victims.
According to New York magazine, "it was common knowledge at Fox that Ailes frequently made inappropriate comments to women in private meetings and asked them to twirl around so he could examine their figures; and there were persistent rumors that Ailes propositioned female employees for sexual favors."
"Workforce training probably is not going to be effective in changing a workplace culture of harassment that is condoned and modeled by those at the top," Kruse said.
Also, according to New York magazine, Ailes was likely to get away with his behavior for so long because he "positioned his former secretaries in key departments where he could make use of their loyalty to him."
"One, Nikole King, went to the finance department, where she handled Ailes's personal expenses," the magazine wrote. "Another, Brigette Boyle, went to human resources …"
"Cronyism at the top is widespread and probably happens much more than we realize because whistle-blowers generally pay a heavy price," said Jacqueline Farrington of Los Angeles- and New York City-based Farrington Partners, an executive coaching firm. "Recent headlines prove this can go on for years within an organization. Like any powerful cartel, corporate cronyism wields fear to keep its victims silent."
Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of ELI, an Atlanta-based company that helps organizations address bad behavior in the workplace.
"The most challenging situation involving harassment … arises when senior leaders either engage in such conduct, tolerate it, or ignore or squash complaints and complainants," he said. "When senior leaders flaunt the rules, or fail to address problems, or allow special treatment [of] their friends or 'super star' harassers, they undermine the credibility of whatever training is offered. This is one of the key themes emphasized by the [EEOC task force] report."
That report concluded that training is most effective "when tailored to the specific workforce and workplace, and to different cohorts of employees."
Farrington warned against using off-the-shelf training.
"It will never speak to your workforce," she said. "One of the main reasons training doesn't work is because companies too frequently try to save costs by using generic online training. This checks the box for companies, but it doesn't engage or challenge employees to have real conversations. Training needs to focus on real-life scenarios and provide employees with options for how to respond."
To that end, Kruse said, training needs to include stories and examples that "show what is and isn't acceptable and that demonstrate what an employee might do if she experiences or witnesses conduct that falls short of the employer's standards."
Paskoff said it's important that training avoid vague terms.
"Too often [training programs] direct participants to treat one another with 'dignity' or 'respect' or other comparable aspirational terms without explaining what is actually meant," he said. "As an example, instead of saying 'respect,' it should be defined with clarity: 'Do not yell, insult or make fun of other people. ' "
Training also needs to convince bystanders that—even if they themselves aren't victims of harassment—they have an obligation to speak up, Paskoff said.
"Bystander intervention training has long been used as a violence prevention strategy, and it has become increasingly utilized by colleges and high schools to prevent sexual assault," EEOC commissioners Victoria Lipnic and Chai Feldblum wrote for the task force. "The training has been shown to change social norms and empower students to intervene with peers to prevent assaults from occurring."
Finally, Farrington said, encourage workers to form or join affinity groups so they can find support and a voice. In the Fox case, she said, "it took one person to find the courage to step forward; once they did, others followed.""There are things employees can do to empower themselves and HR can support them in this," she said. "We used to believe that culture could only be set at the top. We're now seeing many successful 'grass roots' changes where employees begin to build culture from the bottom up and by doing so, influence leadership."
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