HR & Management

Lessons from Weinstein: Why people get away with sexual assault at work

8 min read

27 October 2017

Recent sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein have served to highlight how common and pernicious this issue still is in the workplace. But there are ways to prevent it.

Stories about current and historical sexual assault have sparked a wider discussion on how the workplace is meant to be safe, free from predatory behaviour – and that the reasons people get away with it are as obvious as they are preventable.

Some examples from Harvey Weinstein are instructive in demonstrating inherent problems in arrangements and culture. For example, terrible and damaging cases of sexual assault and harassment happen for at least five common reasons.

(1) Distance between official policy and actual behaviour. When the official company policy or code of conduct is ignored, and individual, groups or the entire company is allowed to violate good practice, bad behaviour is allowed and implicitly encouraged.

(2) Creating an image of success. An image of great success, achievement or power can often conceal the real intentions or typical behaviour of an individual or company. An image of success can conceal a multitude of sins.

(3) Rewarding bad behaviour. When a company culture, an employee contract or reward systems encourage bad behaviour, bad behaviour will flourish. When there are short-term rewards for both an individual and a company, bad behaviour often trumps long-term constructive interests.

(4) Excessive trust and ambition. Some people are naive and easily trusting, but a strong board and a leadership team must be more savvy – a significant part of the board’s responsibility is oversight. A leadership team and a board must be balance a reasonable level of trust with taking direct responsibility for the goings on within the company and the behaviour of those within it.

(5) Systems vulnerable to abuse. Some systems are better set up to deal with problems, abuse or misconduct by employees. Other systems are set up either deliberately or accidentally to be more permissive and vulnerable to abuse. People with more destructive or predatory tendencies will take advantage of these systems and each and every one of the previous points.

The Weinstein case

Weinstein illustrates how abuse of systems and people can still be troublingly common. But the examples show that harassment and sexual assault is also preventable. One case of individual abuse that is widespread should not ignore the complicity of others. Corporate responsibility should and must prevent it.


The Me Too hashtag has encouraged people to speak up about their experiences

A system vulnerable and ripe for abuse is illustrated in Weinstein’s reported employment agreement with the Weinstein Corporation. The Telegraph claimed his employment contract built in provisos for misconduct, as long as he paid legal costs along with a fine.

The reports suggest the first instance of misconduct would incur a $250,000 fine, the next would cost an extra $500,000, the third case being a fee of $750,000, with a $1m penalty for further incidents.

This type of contract would not just ignore sexual assault and harassment (as long as the financial costs were absorbed by the perpetrator), would not just be complicit in the behaviour, but would actually allow the company to profit from it.

MacRae sets out steps to prevent derailment on the next page

It would be bad enough for an organisation to cover up sexual assault, but it sends an even more troubling message when it can make up to a million dollars every time someone settles a sexual harassment case.

Sexual assault and harassment is unacceptable, and companies should and must treat it as such. When the company, its policy or board treats criminal behaviour like sexual harassment as a minor indiscretion to be overlooked, it could be complicit in allowing behaviour to continue. There are likely far more cases like Weinstein’s that have unfortunately gone under the radar and unpunished, but this is entirely preventable.

A zero tolerance policy

Speaking to a CEO of a major financial institution provided a good example of how things should be done differently. This CEO fired a vice president on the spot, when caught publicly and aggressively harassing a female colleague. The decision was important to punish the behaviour, but equally important to send a message that there were no second chances, and no future in the company for those who sexually assaulted someone.

Companies that want to take the issue seriously will send a clear message of its unacceptable nature – that punishments will be swift and decisive. Of course, the example above is one where the harassment was witnessed directly by the CEO. Sometimes these cases are more complex or ambiguous, so the decision needs to be combined with proper procedures and investigations. Allegations and accusations must be dealt with in a way that is fair to all parties.

Steps to prevent derailment

There are usually warning signs when people have a pattern of bad, abusive or criminal behaviour. The New York Times reported that Weinstein reached settlements with at least eight women for sexual harassment. The New Yorker reports dozens of alleged victims, along with staff who were bullied or blackmailed into complicity. There are three important components of preventing bad behaviour:

(1) Proper oversight. Proper oversight, governance and corporate responsibility is essential. Bad behaviour, particularly illegal, abuse or harassment behaviour needs to be prohibited, challenged and shut down.

(2) Good selection. People with a consistent and unapologetic pattern of illegal or abusive behaviour need to be avoided. They should not be brought into the company, and if they bring this behaviour into the company they need to be removed.

(3) Personal support. Bad behaviour needs to be confronted and dealt with. Trusted and respected colleagues or friends need to make it clear which behaviours are helpful and which are intolerable or unacceptable.

The case of Weinstein is extremely troubling by the alleged severity, frequency and cruelty of sexual assault. Even one instance  is unacceptable. It has clearly showed such abuse is still a problem for many individuals and companies, which must be dealt with. While individual examples of abusers are unforgivable, we must remember companies have a responsibility to make sure it is not tolerated in the workplace.

Ian MacRae is co-author of Myths of Work: The stereotypes and assumptions holding your organisation back which challenges misconceptions about the workplace and describes how to make work and workplaces better.