The many claims emerging about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment are repulsive. Even as Weinstein denies many of the charges, top industry names have piled on to denounce his actions and, in many cases, try to establish their lack of knowledge.
But in a high-profile case such as Weinstein’s, there are things to learn that are universal. Two are enablement and bullying. Both are enormous problems in business and require long and determined behavior to root out.
Sexual harassment is a personal issue. Perpetrators indulge their unchecked appetites at the expense of other individuals, using physical and emotional threats to silence victims.
At the same time, such harassment is rarely only the action of a singular person because there is a context — a business and societal mechanism — that enables the behavior. The business provides power without proper checks and balances. As my Inc colleague Suzanne Lucas has noted, “One of the worst mistakes companies make is ignoring complaints like this.” She referred to a message from a reader at a small company without an HR department, but this can be as true in a large company as small.
Things get much worse, however, when companies know something is wrong. According to the New York Times, “legal records, emails and internal documents” from Miramax and the Weinstein Company showed that others in the companies knew of many allegations against him and payments made to multiple women to make problems disappear from view.
When others ignore or cover up allegations of sexual misconduct by someone powerful, they enable the behavior. The media in the last few days has been filled with accounts by the powerful in the entertainment industry about how they never realized what was going on. Perhaps. It can be possible to be acquainted with someone for an extensive period of time without understanding the person’s true nature. But there have been other stories in the past and some in the industry have called out the protestations of ignorance.
Bullying has become almost an aside in the Weinstein tales. What makes sexual harassment and worse possible is intimidation, whether physical, emotional, or professional. The perpetrator threatens some aspect of the well-being of the victim.
Bullying, however, is not limited to the realms of sexual harassment. It is so common in business that it becomes invisible. A person with some organizational power decided to beat down someone else. They assume that, because of customs in corporations, no one will challenge the action.
People find themselves browbeaten into undertaking tasks beyond their duties, working longer hours, and even taking responsibility for the bad decisions of those above. There are times that bullying turns into literal physical conflict. Years ago there was a story about Meg Whitman having settled a lawsuit over having shoved an employee and settling a lawsuit for about $200,000.
Bullying in any form is wrong. It’s also self-destructive for the organization. Intimidated employees don’t go out on a limb and aren’t going to bring their best for fear of criticism. The best will effectively tell the superior where to place the job by finding employment elsewhere. The resulting atmosphere will undercut innovation, which requires a high degree of trust and cooperation.
The only way things change is when people realize that, like a building, a business on a foundation that incorporates rot is ultimately in danger. In addition to the moral and ethical imperatives, enablement and bullying undercut the strength of a company. A company’s entire management structure, including the board of directors, must learn that protecting the corporation really only happens when these behaviors are stopped. Protection doesn’t come from covering up a problem as that process that will never stop, draining attention and resources.
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