Harvey Weinstein is your problem too


The tide of allegations of sexual harassment which has flowed from the Harvey Weinstein affair and is currently engulfing Westminster feels a bit different from the usual media feeding frenzy. In fact something fundamental is shifting. Like most cultural shifts in the past (over attitudes to race, class and sexuality), it concerns something which is literally hiding in plain sight – so big we don’t see it: changing attitudes to how men and women interact.

So what makes this story different from countless other scandals involving (mostly) men in positions of power exploiting younger (mostly) women? After all it was this time last year that the tape of Donald Trump boasting about grabbing a woman’s crotch became public and that didn’t even dent his election prospects let alone signal a sea change in attitudes.

And what are the lessons for business in all this? Because anyone in the business world who thinks this isn’t an issue for them better think again. Like most “media storms” the demand for new revelations to keep people reading or watching can take it in any direction. If I was an editor right now I’d be demanding to know from every one of my section heads who are the Harvey Weinsteins on their patch.

To answer the second question first. I think we should take it as read that any reasonably sized business should have policies in place to prevent sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace and procedures for victims to report allegations. But, as one senior female executive pointed out to me, that is just “arse covering. That’s just the stuff employers do to make sure they can’t be blamed when incidents do come to light.”

According to an account in the FT by Zelda Perkins, Weinstein’s former personal assistant, Miramax only promised to set up a formal complaints procedure because she demanded it as part of an agreement to settle her claim of sexual harassment against her former employer. Even though it was written into her agreement it is not clear whether it was ever implemented. But even if it was, would it have made any difference?

The BBC, another institution where allegations of sexual harassment have been levelled, is an organisation that has policies and procedures for everything. But what use is a reporting procedure if the victim is too afraid of the damage to their career to complain or too naïve to understand what is and isn’t acceptable in the rough and tumble of working life? And what if it’s behaviour that doesn’t cross the threshold of harassment but is upsetting or disrespectful?

The reason Weinstein got away with it for so long was not for a lack of reporting procedures but because of a culture where that kind of behaviour was never challenged and in fact was effectively condoned by the ranks of executives, lawyers, financiers, actors - yes and journalists - who knew and did nothing about it. And it is the growing recognition of that fact that makes this different from previous scandals.

Weinstein, Miramax and probably many other Hollywood studios and big businesses have managed to keep a lid on sexual scandals in the past by using their legal and financial muscle to silence the victims with draconian NDAs. But what use is an NDA once the dam breaks and people realise the damage to the company in taking them to court for speaking out about abuse means they are unlikely ever to do it?

The real lesson for business is that it needs to ensure that the culture and values it communicates make it clear that harassment, bullying and disrespectful behaviour especially by people in senior positions won’t be tolerated. Arguably they need to go even further. By being proactive about teaching men how to behave, by challenging some of the things they do without realising it (like talking over women at meetings or manspreading) and by making it clear there is zero tolerance for that kind of behaviour. It might sound absurd but perhaps some men really do need to be told that it is no more acceptable to put their hand on the knee of a female colleague or work contact than it would be if they were male.

But it also needs a more proactive approach. You can’t just write your policy, send it round, organise a diversity training workshop and then put your feet up thinking “job done”. It means constant work to engage with staff, to discuss these issues, to check in particularly with young, more junior staff and to challenge men not to tolerate the kind of low-level sexist behaviour and sexual banter which makes women feel uncomfortable.

That needs to come from the top which means challenging even senior leaders’ attitudes and behaviour. No-one is going to take a lesson in mutual respect from a leader who is known as a sexist bully. Which means the board has to take ownership of this issue as well. 

This isn’t something that can be put in the box of HR and forgotten about anymore. 


Photo credit: Nick Stepowyj

Stephen BevanComment