Harvey Weinstein harassment scandal: Three things HR should have done
Famed Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein made headlines everywhere recently after a New York Times exposé revealed that his sexual indiscretions had resulted in a string of harassment allegations dating as far back as thirty years ago.
Weinstein, the co-founder of two highly-successful film studios – Miramax and The Weinstein Company – had reportedly reached settlements with at least eight women for sexual harassment and assault accusations.
While actresses like Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan were among the many to have come forward with their own stories, many more were non-public figures, with a majority being former employees and associates of Miramax or The Weinstein Company.
In 2015, Lauren O’Connor, who was a book scout at Weinstein Company from January 2014 to January 2016, had recounted in a letter to several executives at the company how a female assistant to Weinstein said she was forced into giving her boss a massage while he was naked.
“There is a toxic environment for women at this company,” O’Connor wrote in the memo, adding that she and other female staffers suspected Weinstein was only using them to set up “liaisons with vulnerable women who hope he will get them work” – in other words aspiring actresses who hoped to make it big.
But she was just one of several women who attempted to reveal the truth, only to be paid to remain silent.
Remarkably, tens of former and current employees of Weinstein, from assistants to senior leaders, told The New York Times they knew what was happening behind closed doors, but only a handful said they confronted him.
But O’Connor, like many before her and since, received a settlement payout of between roughly US$80,000 and US$150,000. The complaints would quickly go away.
Since the article on Weinstein’s behaviour came up, many have been asking: Why didn’t management, or anyone, for that matter, confront and hold Weinstein properly accountable? Also, where was HR this whole time?
According to the article, “the HR operation was considered weak in New York and worse in London”, which meant employees often banded together instead to make their case, rather than file official complaints.
So the most important question then is, what should HR have done?
1. Provide a safe space
One critical thing HR needed to do was to design and promote harassment policies, ensure that these are well communicated within the organisation, as well to follow all the appropriate and stated protocols when needed.
As Helena Santos, Head of HR, Asia-Pacific, International Baccalaureate, shares with HRM Magazine, HR has to create a zero-tolerance policy.
“(We have to) implement procedures for investigating and addressing any situation; provide regular and mandatory workplace harassment training; hold the oppressor accountable for their actions; provide support to oppressed employees; be empathetic and listen; and lead by example,” she says.
Having a whistle-blower policy in place, where employees are safe to speak in total confidentiality, is thus, key.
“Even if employees don’t know how to talk about it, leaders and managers have the additional responsibility to act immediately on observations or allegations of harassment,” says Santos. By doing so, employees feel their complaints will be treated seriously, rather than tossed aside as unbelievable or trivial.
2. Be independent
In this case, Weinstein, as a board member and the senior-most person in the company, was able to pressure the rest of the company, including HR, into remaining silent and staying away from his business.
As The New York Times story revealed, Weinstein had enforced a code of silence throughout the organisation: “employees of The Weinstein Company have contracts saying they will not criticize it or its leaders in a way that could harm its ‘business reputation’ or ‘any employee’s personal reputation’”.
Furthermore, Weinstein had very strong legal backing which helped him during negotiations and to settle out of court quickly.
The company’s board of directors, keen to bury the O’Connor issue, also decided not to pursue with investigations.
But no matter how senior leadership wants to write the script, even if it’s the company owners themselves, it is key HR steps in and holds everyone accountable. This is only possible if HR remains independent, and not controlled by management.
As Santos says, “HR has evolved in the last two decades from a ‘personnel management, labour relations’ to a trusty advisor for management and staff.”
However, unfortunately, some malpractices may impact the hard journey of a lot of very good HR professionals that accomplished that.
HR should treat any person with respect and dignity at every stage and take care of the organisation as well. Siding every time with management can have the terrible consequence of losing trust and credibility from the entire staff.
While it is true that HR has to gain the trust of the business in order to receive leadership buy-in, that doesn't mean HR has to kowtow to the owners. However difficult it is, HR should never be afraid of the senior leadership team, or even the board of directors. Especially under such extreme circumstances.
“The only way to change a culture of an organization in these matters is when you foster learning by using feedback of its employees. Learn what the organisation is doing wrong, what is making people leave, and what are the needs of its people,” she says.
“And with all the insights, HR will be able to act upon it and use our own influence to advise management.”
3. Be aware
Many times, in cases of sexual harassment and assault, and even workplace bullying, employees tend to be afraid to voice out for fear of being judged or being doubted.
But the victim, in most circumstances, is likely to share what has happened to them with an office confidant or a tight-knit circle of co-workers, and no one else.
O’Connor was brave to tell on hers’ and others’ experiences, and even then HR did nothing to intervene. But if HR had its ears on the ground, it would have been able to get wind of the situation much earlier and conduct an investigation as soon as possible.
HR, beyond just being in constant communication with line managers, should also have regular conversations with all team members. This way, they would be in the know of what’s really happening across the organisation, even at the department levels, and have a good sense of the things that would otherwise normally go unnoticed.
Furthermore, this would also let every employee, from junior to senior levels, know that the line of communication, should they have anything major and uncomfortable to share, is always available to them.
Sometimes, the most effective harassment deterrence is simply for HR to keep its eyes open.