As 2017 comes to a close, the landscape of sexual harassment claims and the manner in which companies are handling them are changing at breakneck speed.
Over the past 17 months, we’ve seen more and more women all across the country mustering the courage to speak out en masse, and amazingly, they’re no longer being instantly called liars and having their stories pushed aside.
One of the most positive developments is how quickly companies are holding harassers publicly accountable and taking action to right egregious wrongs.
This is a welcome and long overdue change. When my story broke in July 2016, I felt incredibly isolated. In recent times, nobody had taken on such a powerful titan for harassment and won. But in short order, could it be we’re actually seeing the end of a cover-up culture and the demise of a system that in many cases was rigged against the victims?
Companies are rushing to catch up. Whether the “bad behaviors” were known on the inside is a question being asked at NBC, NPR, The Atlantic and many other companies facing harassment scandals. Whether executives knew, suspected or just “heard things” doesn’t matter. Many of the outed predators held their jobs for decades, secure in the knowledge that accusers would be intimidated, maligned or otherwise silenced.
Too often in offices all across America, leadership focuses on damage control — settling with victims and surrounding harassers with assistants, lawyers and PR teams to mitigate the fallout. But as I discovered in researching my book “Be Fierce,” until recently, perpetrators rarely lost their jobs. Instead, many companies normalized harassment — and thus enabled it to continue.
But when my complaint went public, droves of women contacted me. They sent letters and emails, messaged me on Twitter and even stopped me on the street. Maybe it was because of my harasser’s stature, or because I was a familiar (daily) face on TV, but these women thought I would listen. They were right. And it set off a tidal wave of victims with newfound voices.
Just two months ago, their stories might have shocked you: female executives called “cum-dumpsters” by their peers on a daily basis; women given lists of sexual favors to perform for simple perks like an office with a window; Army lieutenants tossing dollar bills at female soldiers and yelling, “Dance for me!” And on and on. Every profession. Every walk of life. Every woman. Now we’re regaled daily with public accounts of powerful men exposing themselves, assaulting colleagues and intimidating anyone who gets in their way.
America is now at a tipping point; real change is finally possible, and there can be no turning back. The rise of the public apology is a good sign. I got a rare public apology from my boss’s parent company, which, to me, was more important than anything else. In contrast, harassers are now apologizing in the first news cycle. This acknowledges something important: Sexual harassment isn’t “bad behavior” — it’s illegal behavior. Whether it’s gender discrimination or crosses the line into sexual abuse, assault or rape, executives must treat it like any other workplace crime.
Reports say that at least one in three women is sexually harassed at work. But since 71% of harassment is never reported, the real number is much higher. And in the past when women found the courage to complain, it often made things worse for them. Almost every woman who reached out to me was re-victimized after coming forward — by being slandered, blacklisted, demoted or, in many cases, fired. The vast majority never worked in their chosen careers again. That’s not only wrong, it’s outrageous.
NBC’s Matt Lauer was fired because of a formal complaint but also, as has been reported, because multiple news outlets were getting ready to break their stories. The takeaway is that companies must stop waiting for tenacious journalists to do what responsible corporate executives should be doing. Make changes now, before a sexual harassment problem spirals out of control and becomes a crisis.
Bottom line: It’s time to unrig the system. The culture of concealment and denial is coming to an end.
Ending nondisclosure agreements for discrimination and harassment claims is crucial. Of course, business and trade secrets must be protected, but NDAs weren’t created to hide dirty laundry. NDAs that protect harassers and keep other victims from coming forward have no place in 2017 corporate culture.
Changing how victims come forward is vitally important. “We’ve never received any complaints” means there’s a serious problem with the process. Organizations can address this by creating a separate, independent track for harassment investigations — a process that’s separate from the top brass and human resources departments. I’ve heard from a lot of good people in HR, but let’s face it: If the harasser is the same person who signs your paycheck, there’s an inherent conflict of interest. Appointing an independent ombudsman, or authorizing more than just one group of individuals across an organization to hear complaints, would be a good first step.
Companies can also identify and reach out to victims who were pushed out and offer them their jobs back. It’s reprehensible that thousands of victims have had their American dream stripped away. Let’s stop talking about what “great guys” these predators were, and start hiring back the women who courageously came forward.
These are important changes companies can make today. They shouldn’t require an act of Congress (though I’m working on that). For the past year, I’ve been meeting with senators and representatives on Capitol Hill to craft a bipartisan bill to end forced arbitration in employee contracts. Forced arbitration protects harassers and takes away all employees’ constitutional right to a jury trial. Companies who want to get ahead of the next harassment bombshell should pick up the phone, call Congress and voice support. As we approach the New Year, wouldn’t it be great for something constructive to get done for women?
These are just first steps. Companies can do much more to promote equality and safe workplaces. They can put more women in top positions and pay women the same as their male counterparts. They can also give more women a seat in the boardroom. They need to be accountable and transparent. Good for PR? Yes. Good for business?
Across every industry, leaders are asking, “Who’s next?” And while more startling revelations are anticipated, that’s not the point. It’s not about who’s next, it’s about what’s next.
Acclaimed journalist Gretchen Carlson, author of the New York Times best-selling book “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back,” filed suit against Fox News chairman/CEO Roger Ailes claiming sexual harassment, which led to his ouster in 2016.