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The Workplace After Harvey Weinstein: Harassment Scandals Prompt Rapid Changes

Nov 10, 2017 / Media Coverage / Wall Street Journal — Carol Hymowitz

Top brass at advertising giant Interpublic Group of Co s. told its 20,000 U.S. employees last week they had until year’s end to complete sexual-harassment training. The session quizzes employees on what to do when a co-worker discusses weekend sexual exploits at work or comes on to a colleague’s girlfriend after hours.

IPG doesn’t have a harassment scandal. Chief Executive Michael Roth told his board he fast-tracked announcing the mandatory training, a board member says, in response to high-profile harassment allegations in Hollywood and media.

“Women are crucial to our business and our workforce,” says Mr. Roth. “We need our environment to be safe for all.”

The wave of misconduct allegations has abruptly shifted the climate in American workplaces, prompting companies to scrutinize how employees work with one another, in one of the most rapid changes in corporate behavior in generations.

Vox Media says it tapped an outside firm to examine its procedures following the dismissal of an executive for inappropriate behavior. Uber Technologies Inc. says it added staff to examine worker concerns including reports of inappropriate conduct, following female employees’ allegations of harassment and mistreatment.

At a growing number of companies that haven’t had public allegations of sexual harassment, including Dell Inc., Rockwell Automation Inc. and Facebook Inc., some
employees have attended training sessions meant to detect biases that can lead to harassment. House Speaker Paul Ryan last week called upon members of Congress to provide sexual-harassment training for their staffers.

The dam broke with the October revelation in New York Times and New Yorker articles that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein for decades allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct. His namesake studio fired him, citing the allegations as cause. A spokeswoman for Mr. Weinstein said he “unequivocally” denies “allegations of nonconsensual sex.”

Since the October reports, more reports of workplace sexual harassment have emerged from individual women and men, and from news accounts and companies. As accusations pile up, they are sparking public and private workplace conversations about how men and women work together, and how companies deal with same-sex harassment.

Managers describe a clear epochal shift: Before Weinstein to After Weinstein.

“This is a moment where people will not turn their heads when something is wrong,” says Pamela Craig, a former Accenture PLC finance chief who sits on the boards of Merck & Co. and Akamai Technologies Inc. and is foundation chair at C200, a women’s leadership organization. “We need to make it a watershed.”

Some liken the moment to the early 1990s, when Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas, then U.S. Supreme Court nominee, had sexually harassed her when he was
 
her boss, igniting a national conversation about workplace harassment. He denied her allegations. Mr. Thomas’s supporters questioned Ms. Hill’s credibility and motives, and he was confirmed to the court in a 52-to-48 vote.

Support for women’s issues swelled—a flood of new female members of Congress were elected in 1992, dubbed “The Anita Hill Class”—but workplace changes were limited.

The speed and sweep of the consequences ... show how shifting social values, given a catalyst, can abruptly force change ... social-media era—a phenomenon also seen in rapid policy shifts ... in same-sex marriage.

In the case of Mr. Weinstein, the fact that some of his accusers were well-known actresses forced people to take notice and emboldened millions more women to share their stories online, using the hashtag #MeToo.

Boardrooms typically don’t address the topic of sexual harassment unless a lawsuit has been filed against the company or a complaint involves a named executive. Now, some directors say they can no longer sit on the sidelines.

“Just as boards should not wait for the Equifax breach to put in place proper cyberdefense and data-security policies, similarly they shouldn’t require a grotesque Harvey Weinstein example to suddenly say, ‘oh, gee, we better check how our own culture is,’ ” says Tom Glocer, former Thomson Reuters CEO, who sits on several corporate boards including Morgan Stanley and Publicis Groupe SA .

More allegations are certain to emerge, business leaders say. But the treatment of women in the workplace is getting better, many say, not worse. Kathleen Peratis, a
partner with the law firm Outten & Golden who handles harassment cases, says she believes there is somewhat less harassment today than there was 25 years ago, largely because women have more power at work and are expressing more outrage.

“Women feel they aren’t going to be sent to Siberia, and that’s giving them courage to speak out,” says Maggie Wilderotter, former Frontier Communications Corp. CEO and a director at Costco Wholesale Corp. , Juno Therapeutics Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. and Cadence Design Systems Inc. Women now possess greater visibility and power in business, she says, coupled with a belief that they have strong career options.

Ms. Wilderotter has noticed a generational change. At a recent dinner gathering of about 30 senior executive women, “practically all said they had to fend for themselves” in the past with unwanted sexual advances at work. The new generation of working women, she says, is less willing to sweep things under the rug and knows employers are more likely to take action and investigate.

Though a large number of the women coming forward are white-collar employees, harassment is equally if not more prevalent in the hourly workforce, workplace experts say, but a similar groundswell is unlikely because the risk of speaking up and losing income may be too great.

Before Weinstein
Even Before Weinstein, recent high-profile scandals in media and entertainment were beginning to draw more attention to sexual misconduct in the workplace.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes was ousted as the network’s boss following allegations against him that led the company to pay out millions in settlements to alleged victims. Top Fox host Bill O’Reilly also departed following revelations that he and the company paid settlements to women who had accused him of harassment. Mr. O’Reilly denies all wrongdoing. Mr. Ailes, who denied wrongdoing, died this year.

Fox News parent 21st Century Fox Inc., which shares common ownership with Wall Street Journal parent News Corp, says it has “directed its businesses to accelerate the pace of live training on workplace behavior” and “continued to strengthen reporting practices.”

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