What Executives Should Be Learning from the Harvey Weinstein Debacle: Part 1 Acceptable Behavior

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It should go without saying, but clearly doesn’t, people in position of power (or perceived power) should not use that that power to compel their subordinates to perform sexual “favors.” The recent and ongoing spectacular downfall of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein, is a cautionary tale that all executives, business owners, and supervisors should heed.

Since the 1950’s, when popular film, TV, and magazines portrayed the workplace as a hot bed of sexual intrigue, where (almost exclusively) men spent their days drinking their lunches and chasing secretaries around the desk, many men and women who have ascended to positions of power consider sex with subordinates (or at least the creation of a sexual atmosphere) a perk of their success.

Of course, in many films and tv programs, the attention wasn’t one sided. From Maureen Arthur’s portrayal of Hedy LaRue in How To Succeed in Business Without Trying to Marilyn Monroe’s Loris Laurel in Monkey Business, and even Loni Anderson’s Jennifer Marlow in WKRP in Cincinnati, the liberated, sexpot secretary who uses the attentions of her boss to get ahead financially and socially has become a staple of popular culture.

Even in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I worked on Wall Street and for Boutique financial firms, many a young woman joined the secretary pool to search for a husband and many young (and not so young) executives trolled the secretarial pools for dates and sometimes wives. Companies often looked the other way when their star financial earners used their position to create a “boy’s club” where the female members of staff where sexually harassed and even assaulted, going so far as to pay off and/or blackmail women who spoke up.

Today, when dating co-workers is de riguer and even those with spouses at home call their best pals at work, work-husbands and work wives, the sexual and quasi-sexual relationships in the workplace can create very real problems for companies looking to avoid financial and legal issues.

So, what can executives, business owners, and supervisors do to ensure that they don’t run afoul of the law and current standards of acceptable behavior.

1# Stop Using Minimizing Terms

A minimizing term is a word or phrase that is used to diminish someone. You may think that it’s cute to call people honey, sweetie, sugar, doll, son, boy, etc. but in the workplace, these terms serve only to make you feel more important. Think about it, would you go to the Chairman of the Board and call him or her “honey” or “son?” Unlikely. Handy rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t use a familiar designation in conversation with someone whom you respect (or fear) in business, don’t use that word with anyone in the workplace.

 

2# Understand That Your Intent is Irrelevant

For the past 15 or 20 years, men (typically) who are chastised for using minimizing terms when speaking to or about their co-workers have sloughed off any criticism by saying some variation of “well she knows I don’t mean anything by it” or “I didn’t intend to offend.” While this has given people a pass in the past, your intention is no longer relevant. If you are smart enough to have risen to a position of power within your firm or started a business, you are smart enough to be able to identify inappropriate and unprofessional commentary and knock it off.

And don’t mistake a smile or even a giggle as acceptance of minimizing terms. Many subordinates (male and female) feel that they have to put up with unwanted or uncomfortable behavior by a boss in order to keep their job or advance.

 

3# Recognize that the Workplace is Not Your Stage or Pulpit.

Many in positions of power go wrong when they try to be “one of the guys.” Think about the cringey behavior of fictional Michael Scott from The Office. Funny on TV, not funny to the people that have to deal with the behavior in real life. You are at work to….work, not to tell jokes, not to create what you consider a “fun” environment.  Being in a position of power means that have to behave differently, more professionally. I’m a blonde, I can appreciate a good blonde joke from someone whom I consider an equal, but if a person in a position of power is telling blonde jokes, I may see that as an indication that he believes the stereotypes and doesn’t value me at work.

By the same token many people in a position of power can use that position to inappropriately badger employees with their own beliefs. Workmates and employees who don’t share your particular beliefs are likely to feel intimidated or uncomfortable. They may be nodding along and smiling but that doesn’t mean that they agree or appreciate your sharing. No matter how passionate you are about a position, if your employees are aware of your personal feelings about politics, religion, race, sexual orientation, etc. you have shared too much. Keep your beliefs to yourself.

 

4# Understand that Preventing a Hostile Work Environment is Your Responsibility, Ethically and Legally

It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that they are behaving in a way that is professional and contributes to a pleasant work environment. However, as an executive, supervisor, or business owner you have the added responsibility of making sure that others are behaving. If you create or allow a hostile work environment to exists, as a person in a supervisory position you can be held legally liable, even if you are not the perpetrator.

 

5# Realize That Your Behavior No Longer Exists in a Vacuum.  

If you are part of the problem, you must understand that the standard, “pay them off, ship them out, and shut them up” method of dealing with the victims of your unwanted advances is no longer an option.  The number of sexual harassment in the workplace claims has skyrocketed as laws have changed to better protect victims. And more people are aware of their rights and their employer’s responsibilities.

In addition, many victims have taken to social media and online databases to document their experiences within their company. For some this is a way to gain support and get advice. For others, this is a way to draw attention and gain some power over the person they feel powerless against at work. 

 

6# Understand that Sexual Harassment in the Workplace isn't "Just" a Woman's Issue or even a Heterosexual Issue.

92% of sexual harassment claims filed are filed by women, but not all of these claims arise from men attempting to force a woman into a sexual relationship. Some men create a sexually charged work environment by making comments about a woman's body or suggesting that she gained her position through sexual favors.

By the same token, both men and women can be the focus of homosexual advances or by the "boss" making inappropriate comments about the victims sexuality. Members of the LGBT community can face work place sexual harassment when the climate of the office is negative towards same sex relationships.

People of all genders who aren't the direct target of sexual advances also find that a sexually charged work environment is uncomfortable and unprofessional. Watching helplessly while a co-worker is bullied, intimidated, and sexually objectified hurts morale and work productivity and contributes to loss of employee satisfaction and retention. 

 

It appears that a lot of people simply accepted Weinstein’s behavior saying “well it’s just Harvey,” and turned a blind eye because he was a powerful man and his films made money. Some women blew the whistle on their treatment at his hands, while others kept quiet out of fear, and still others accepted that the Hollywood “casting couch” was a price that they were willing to pay for career advancement. But no matter what their rational after the fact, no one should be put into a position where they have to consider having sex with a boss in order to get or keep a job.

Of course, not all claims of sexual harassment are legitimate and executives can put themselves, innocently, in compromising positions when they haven’t created the proper barriers and protocols for behavior. This is an increasing problem in casual work environments.

Tomorrow in Part Two, we will look at ways that executives and businesses can protect themselves from unfounded sexual harassment charges.  

Alexandrea Merrell