Sexual Harassment Returns to the Headlines

Media companies typically love publicity.  They typically clamor for front-page news coverage.  But recently, sexual harassment allegations have created unwelcome headlines for those companies.

Cable giant Fox News faced sexual harassment woes earlier this year that led to the departure of its former Chairman and CEO, Roger Ailes, and host Bill O’Reilly.  Now, it’s multimedia company, The Weinstein Company (TWC), and its co-founder Harvey Weinstein.  With Weinstein at the helm of both TWC and Miramax Films, also founded by the Weinstein brothers, the companies have received 303 Oscar nominations and won 75 Academy Awards.  But after a New York Times article last week, it appears that movie production isn’t all that Weinstein has been up to.

Yesterday, TWC fired Weinstein after the article exposed “rampant sexual harassment,” including numerous sexual harassment allegations by actresses and former employees against him over the last 30 years.  Behind the glitz and glamour, Weinstein created what a former colleague called a “toxic environment for women at his company.”

What can employers learn from the plot twists in this latest sexual harassment saga?  Simply put – don’t allow an environment that tolerates any type of harassment.  To stay out of the headlines, employers should update policies and practices regarding harassment in the workplace.  A straightforward, understandable, and enforceable sexual harassment policy will minimize the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace and support a safe, productive, and appropriate workplace.

These policies should include:

  • A clear definition of sexual harassment and the type of conduct prohibited by the policy;
  • A clear and all-inclusive definition of who the policy applies to;
  • A reporting mechanism, which encourages immediate reporting and does not require the complaint to take a particular form or be made to one particular person;
  • A statement that the company will promptly review and investigate reported incidents;
  • A declaration that the company will treat all reports as discreetly as possible;
  • Assurance that the company will subject sexual harassers to appropriate disciplinary action;
  • An anti-retaliation provision for those who report violations or assist in investigations; and
  • A warning regarding employees making false accusations of harassment.

Once employers have a policy in place, they should communicate and train employees on these policies.  Employers should also examine workplace culture to ensure that both its policies and management are supporting a culture of openness, respect, and compliance.  Employers must communicate through their policy and actions that all employees will be held accountable.  Training all employees on the employer’s sexual harassment policy offers a great opportunity for the employer to communicate its commitment to creating a culture where employees feel empowered to confront and report sexual harassment no matter who the harasser may be.

The New York Times article reports that dozens of Weinstein’s former and current employees knew of the inappropriate conduct but never confronted him due to his position and power.  Had TWC successfully employed a sexual harassment policy, this story may have ended very differently.

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