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Will Focus on Hollywood Toxicity Force a Culture Change at Top Agencies?

The entertainment and media world has been upended in recent weeks by a deluge of allegations of sexual harassment and assault leveled at powerful and prominent figures, ranging from Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner and Kevin Spacey to journalists such as Mark Halperin and former NPR editor Mike Oreskes. The storm has yielded horrifying stories of abuse of power and sexual misconduct that have shocked even Hollywood veterans. It has also reinforced the stereotype of the casting couch as a mandatory form of subjugation for women seeking to advance in the industry.

But the heightened focus on work-related sexual harassment has also turned a spotlight on the prevalence of behavior that may be less gasp-inducing but is nonetheless pernicious. For many victims, sexual harassment in the workplace is akin to death by a thousand paper cuts — a steady drumbeat of low-grade annoyances that blur the line between simply boorish and outright criminal, but are all undeniably in violation of company harassment policies. Unwelcome comments on a person’s appearance, repeated requests for dates, graphic questions about a person’s sex life or dating history, or lewd remarks in general are an unfortunate fact of life for employees of both genders.

In the entertainment business — and particularly at the largest talent agencies — the combination of outsize egos, big profits, a highly competitive working environment and the glamour associated with film and TV can create conditions ripe for harassment to occur unchecked. All of these factors were in play in the case of two recent dismissals and one suspension at prominent agencies: Adam Venit, the longtime head of WME’s motion picture group, is on leave from the agency as it probes an allegation of sexual harassment involving actor Terry Crews. Earlier, ICM Partners parted ways with Erik Horine, and CAA with Ryan Ly.

Horine has expressed regret for his actions and sought counseling and sensitivity training in the four months since he resigned under pressure from ICM. He is not accused of engaging in any physical harassment of his co-workers. “I recognize that I can’t undo the past, but at least I can make sure that I never again act in a manner that makes my co-workers or others upset or uncomfortable around me,” Horine said in a statement to Variety. “I am regretful every day for any pain I have caused. I will do everything possible to continue the personal growth that is needed on my part.”

Ly, dismissed in September, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Venit and WME also declined to comment.

In many instances, experts say, a co-worker or supervisor who makes unwelcome remarks will escalate his or her actions over time. If crude comments and sophomoric attitudes are not challenged, the perpetrator is often emboldened to go further, according to Michelle Lee Flores, a labor law expert and partner with the L.A.-based firm Cozen O’Connor. “Some behavior may not rise to the level of being illegal but it is definitely something the company would not condone,” says Flores. “It’s like pushing the envelope: If there are no consequences for certain behaviors, then they will push it a little beyond that. A lot of times it’s unconscious for these people.”

The cost to a company can be significant if unchecked — not just in potential settlements to victims but in corporate culture. Harassment drives promising employees to leave, and overall performance can suffer due to weak morale or the lack of teamwork.

The unprecedented climate of the past few months, in which victims are speaking up in greater numbers, has clearly spurred companies, in and outside Hollywood, to be more vigilant in enforcing workplace standards. Experts say the long-term solution must include employers shifting the focus from a defensive stance to guard against liability to a proactive approach to ensure a healthy and welcoming environment for all employees.

Sexual Harassment Claims by Year Chart

On the downside, experts say there is a danger amid what some see as a national panic over harassment allegations that opportunities for women in business may be curbed, at least in the short term, if male leaders become more fearful of recruiting or promoting women, or of working with female business partners.

“Meetings aren’t against the law. Sexually predatory ones are,” says Noreen Farrell, executive director of San Francisco-based nonprofit Equal Rights Advocates. “Most players in Hollywood understand the difference. As a practical matter, excluding women or men — both of whom can be victimized — from meetings would shut Hollywood and every industry down. The answer is not to exclude anyone from meetings, but to keep them professional, no matter where they take place.”

The key to rooting out harassment is to encourage victims to speak up and to empower supervisors to recognize problems early. But both of those things are easier said than done, experts say. “Disrespectful behavior is the gateway drug to illegal behavior,” Flores says. She has worked with numerous entertainment firms over the years in establishing company policies, reporting and enforcement mechanisms. One thing she most stresses with clients is to train supervisors to keep a watchful eye on morale and to encourage leaders to set a good example.

Fear of retaliation and fear of compromising future job opportunities are the biggest deterrents for victims to speak out in the face of behavior that crosses the line. This sentiment was put in stark relief by the number of A-list actresses who came forward with years- and decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct — and worse — involving Weinstein.

But attitudes may well be undergoing a seismic generational shift, as evidenced by the extraordinary outpouring from women and men over the past few months.

Wendy Walsh, a relationship expert, radio personality and author, was among the women who broke their silence earlier this year on allegations of harassment by former Fox News star anchor Bill O’Reilly as part of a New York Times exposé published in April. O’Reilly was fired from the network barely three weeks later.

When Walsh was debating whether to go public in the Times about her O’Reilly experiences, she consulted with many friends. Those 45 and over were more likely to advise against speaking out than those who were younger. “This behavior has become so normalized to women of [the over-45] generation that nobody thought anything could be done about it. It’s just ‘the way things are,’ ” she says.

Walsh, who had been a semi-regular guest on “The O’Reilly Factor,” had the choice to speak freely because she never made a complaint or sought a financial settlement from O’Reilly or Fox News. “My silence is not for sale,” she says.

The events of the past 18 months — starting with the sexual harassment lawsuit that led to the ouster of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes in July 2016 — have irrevocably emboldened women in the workplace to fight discrimination in all its forms, Walsh observes. She is heartened by the fact that her moral courage on O’Reilly led to many new advertisers aligning with her daily radio program on KFI-AM Los Angeles.

“It’s exciting to see this giant cultural shift happening before our eyes,” Walsh says. “This is really a movement.”

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