Many companies don’t go far enough to address sexual harassment, but the tide is turning

Consider the swift firings of Matt Lauer and others amid the recent flood of high-profile sexual misconduct scandals.
Craig Ruttle/Associated Press/File 2017
Consider the swift firings of Matt Lauer and others amid the recent flood of high-profile sexual misconduct scandals.

Until recently, sexual harassment in the workplace was often dealt with quickly and quietly, or in some cases not at all. Companies might send out a generic training video, maybe transfer the alleged harasser to another department, and consider the matter resolved.

But the tide seems to be turning. Employers have started reexamining their policies and are being encouraged to delve into corporate cultures that may foster harassment. And women’s claims are being taken more seriously. Consider the swift firings of Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, and others amid the recent flood of high-profile sexual misconduct scandals.

Still, there’s a long way to go.


Case in point: In May, when a sales associate got sick of the locker room culture at a Boston branch of a national retail firm and filed a sexual harassment claim, the company dealt with her allegations, which included vulgar text messages and inappropriate touching, by moving the main offender, a manager, to a different district, the woman said.

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Months later, after subsequent incidents involving other managers, the company held a 20-minute office-wide training. But sexual innuendo and harassment continued to be part of her work life. So the woman quit — and is preparing to sue.

“It’s not that they did nothing, but they didn’t do much,” said the woman’s lawyer, who asked not to be identified because the suit hasn’t been filed. “The training was basically, ‘You shouldn’t say these things because the company could be liable. This could cost you and the company a lot of money.’ ”

This kind of “cover your butt” approach doesn’t do much, if anything, to prevent harassment, said Meg Bond, director of the Center for Women and Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, if it isn’t accompanied by in-depth efforts to change the way women are treated.

A recent report by McKinsey & Co. and found that only a third of women surveyed say that disrespectful behavior is dealt with quickly at their company. And a recent survey of more than 400 board members — conducted before the recent wave of sexual harassment accusations — found that three-quarters of boards had not discussed allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior taking place around the country.


Changes are in the works, however.

In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission deployed a task force, of which Bond was a part, that found that for decades workplace training has been centered around avoiding legal liability — basically, “here’s the line, don’t cross it.” Days before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, the agency announced new training programs that shift the focus to workplace civility and bystander intervention.

The National Women’s Law Center just introduced the Legal Network for Gender Equity, made up of more than 220 lawyers across the country committed to providing at least one free legal consultation for women who have experienced sexual harassment or other discrimination, and representing them, on a contingency or pro bono basis, if necessary.

Sexual harassment laws have been in place for decades, but that doesn’t mean they are strictly enforced.

“My sense is there was kind of a complacency in the aftermath of the women’s movement that because we had passed so many good civil rights laws, including Title IX, that we were done,” said Wendy Murphy, a Boston attorney and professor who specializes in sexual violence law. “We kind of went to Congress and went home.”


In Massachusetts, where all employers are required to have sexual harassment policies, companies are held to a stricter legal standard than in many other states. If a supervisor harasses an employee, even if the company wasn’t aware of the abuse, the company can be held liable. But this statute could lead organizations to side with the alleged harasser to try to reduce their legal risk, said Boston attorney Patricia Washienko — finding that there was a miscommunication, not harassment, for instance, and then hustling the offender off to management training.

Firing a harasser could be seen as an admission of guilt, Washienko said, and “I don’t often see perpetrators fired.”

This kind of legally motivated collusion is widespread, workplace trainers and labor attorneys say, and it begins at the top — especially if the alleged harasser brings in a lot of money.

A decade ago, Boston management consultant Katie Herzog was trying to help a Delaware law firm figure out how to deal with a partner who was having sex with his secretary in the office. “It wasn’t rape, exactly, but consensual is a stretch,” she said. Regardless, it was still sexual harassment. The secretary complained to the firm, but it did nothing, even after the partner pulled down his pants while boasting about his conquest at a bar across the street, Herzog said. A year later, the partner was finally pushed out.

“They wanted to figure any way to keep him in the firm because he brought in so much business,” Herzog said. “In the past, I have had to push very hard just to get people reprimanded.”

When a company does conduct an investigation, the results can be surprising. Over a 30-year career in human resources, Bob Kelleher looked into roughly 50 sexual harassment claims. In every case, the women were telling the truth, and the men admitted what they had done, said Kelleher, who now runs Employee Engagement Group in Woburn. Many of the men had excuses, however, Kelleher said, such as, “I didn’t mean it like that” or “It wasn’t my intent.” One man even said, “Guys are weak.”

Often, though, employees are reluctant to go to HR.

“The perception is that HR is just another arm of the corporation and is going to defend the corporation first,” said Helen Drinan, a former HR executive — and now president of Simmons College — who once famously did the exact opposite.

When Drinan was senior vice president for human resources for Caritas Christi Health Care System, run by the Catholic Church, several women approached her in 2006 about chief executive Robert Haddad kissing them on the lips and calling them late at night. Drinan and an outside lawyer both conducted investigations and concluded Haddad should be fired, but Cardinal Sean O’Malley decided that sexual harassment sensitivity training and a “stern reprimand” would suffice, according to a Globe story.

Drinan was incensed, and fired off letters to O’Malley and the board of governors. A few days later, Haddad resigned.

Getting at the root of these issues can require changing an organization’s culture, and for Herzog, president of Eastern Point Consulting Group, that starts with surveying and interviewing workers.

When she presents her findings to the executive team, she talks about how an offender’s behavior affects co-workers and creates financial and psychological costs.

The key is not getting people to change their mind-set, but their behavior, said Herzog, who plans to write a book when she retires called “Zip It!” about men keeping their pants on in the workplace. Once, when working with a serial sexual harasser — subordinates kept coming out of his office with their hair ruffled and blouses unbuttoned, Herzog said — her first recommendation was to remove the couch, because she knew they wouldn’t fire him.

“As Jimmy Carter said, he lusted in his heart,” she said. “Fine, lust away . . . but do not act upon it.”

Corporate consultant Barbara Annis, chief executive of Gender Intelligence Group in New York, has recently started assessing executives and managers by talking to everyone they come in contact with, including clients and receptionists, in an attempt to weed out potential problems. To keep companies from hiring bad actors in the first place, she recommends “behavioral interviewing” — taking job candidates out to lunch, say, and watching how they treat the wait staff.

One positive development Annis has seen in recent years: an increased willingness by both men and women to call out bad behavior. During a meeting in San Francisco about a sexual harassment incident involving an employee named Bob, the chief executive made a crack along the lines of: “The problem with Bob is he doesn’t know that harass is not two words.” Instead of laughing along, however, Annis said, another man pointed out how inappropriate the comment was. And the CEO surprised everyone by shaking the man’s hand and thanking him.

Many workplace consultants see a paradigm shift occurring as awareness increases and more women speak out — and more harassers are fired. But some are skeptical that the moment will lead to real change.

“We’ve been here before,” said Bond of UMass Lowell, noting the uproar over the Anita Hill testimony in 1991 that didn’t stop Clarence Thomas from getting appointed to the Supreme Court, and didn’t stem the tide of sexual harassment. “This time around, I hope that our collective societal attention span is long enough to sustain real change.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.