Film producer Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, has been sacked by his own company amid a slew of sexual harassment allegations that reportedly date back decades. The story has sent shock waves through the film industry, with many stars speaking of their surprise at the allegations.
The New York Times reported a number of allegations against Weinstein, saying that he had reached at least eight settlements with women over the years in order to keep them quiet.
Weinstein initially apologised, saying: “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologise for it.” He then reportedly emailed studio executives and agents hours before he was fired asking for their support.
The New York Times quotes that email as saying: “We believe what the board is trying to do is not only wrong but might be illegal and would destroy the company. If you could write this letter backing me, getting me the help and time away I need, and also stating your opposition to the board firing me, it would help me a lot. I am desperate for your help.”
“Although we do not yet know the precise sequence of events that led to Harvey Weinstein being fired, it is clear that allegations of sexual harassment played their part,” says David Southall, an employment law consultant for the ELAS Group. “It is reported that these allegations go back over a number of years yet were not acted upon. The alleged perpetrator appears to have lost his job but this does not mean that the company can absolve itself. It faces a media backlash and potential litigation.”
Popular opinion is that there’s no coming back from being accused of sexual harassment, and according to Southall, this is a timely reminder that employers who don’t keep their harassment and grievance procedures updated are at risk of breaching their responsibilities under Equality Legislation.
“Let me make this very clear – harassment of any kind is wrong. It is not only illegal but a fundamental breach of the trust between an employee and employer. If these allegations are true then Mr Weinstein’s behaviour does not belong in any environment, particularly not in a workplace,” he says.
All employers should have an Equal Opportunities Policy. This is a statement of intent that all employees will be treated with dignity and respect by the organisation and its procedures. In addition all employers should have clear and comprehensive Harassment and Grievance Policies included in their employment handbook. These will explain the mechanics of how an employee who is concerned about the behaviour of colleagues can register their worries. Whether the concerns are minor or major, reporting them provides an opportunity to address them at an early stage and avoid any situation becoming more serious, Southall says.
“However it is not sufficient just to have policies in place. Thought should be given to how comfortable employees would be raising issues which are potentially career ending, especially if they are made against a person in a powerful position such as Mr Weinstein. There needs to be faith in the workforce that if they raise sensitive concerns these will be dealt with in a sensitive and supportive manner,” he adds.
“The suspicion that allegations will be ignored or parked in an administrative dead end needs to be dissipated. Employees do not want to be judged as having no sense of humour if they raise a concern about the banter of a popular colleague. However, it is just this sort of notification that senior managers and company owners could otherwise miss, based on their own life experiences.”
Addressing and resolving any issues in a sensitive and intelligent manner will maintain staff morale and loyalty, as well as avoid unnecessary law suits and dismissals, he adds.
However, there’s also the issue of cover-ups and conspiracies, says Southall. It can be tempting for a board of directors to cover up discriminatory behaviour by a key member of staff. “The short-terms needs of keeping a so-called profit generator on-side are weighed against the legal requirement to comply with Equality Legislation, and sadly the latter is often deemed to be of lesser importance. Bad decisions are made when the need to retain a socially rogue individual is placed above the organisation’s reputation and fall out, should the behaviour be exposed in public.”
The tactic of using some form of agreement where, for a financial settlement the aggrieved employee is bound to say nothing about her (and it is usually her) experiences, may work once or twice. But where is becomes a habit, an organisation needs to look to the cause of the problem and deal with it, says Southall.
As politicians and celebrities have found over the decades, it is the attempts to cover up wrongdoings that are sometimes more damaging than the wrongdoing itself. Social media now makes it easier than ever for individuals who shared similar experiences, possibly years apart, to connect. Add to this a breaching of the law and acceptable social behaviour by companies and the ingredients for a Harvey Weinstein situation are all assembled.
“It doesn’t matter how key or influential the alleged perpetrator may be to an organisation, they cannot be allowed to be deemed more important than the negative reputational impact of the organisation’s name becoming a meme for sexual harassment. This is not just true of the Hollywood casting couch but also organisations at the cutting edge of the gig economy, such as Uber.”