How corporate cultures must change to stamp out sexual harassment

As careers crumble in the US film industry and UK politics, we explore the organisational costs of sexual harassment, and how the root causes can be effectively tackled

For anyone with even the faintest interest in the people politics behind the silver screen, the past month has been a grim cavalcade of dismaying revelations. Like boulders rolling down a mountain to become an avalanche, accusations of sexual harassment, serious sexual assault and rape, initially revolving around Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, have now ranged far and wide – mowing down careers not just on America’s west coast, but in the UK’s seat of government, too.

Film is, in many ways, a disorienting field. While the industry’s cinematic output is awash with glamour, and red-carpet premieres exert a magnetic pull on the general public, that sheen of cutting-edge artistry, posh frocks and sharp suits conceals a world of ruthless appetites. Money is both the propellant and the goal, status can be boosted or ruined in the space of a quick phone call, and young people made vulnerable by their ambitions are urged to show how far they are prepared to go in order to taste the success they crave.

The hours are brutally long, the financial stakes are high – and then, on top of that, there’s the industry’s unique complication, which is that so many people in it are pretending to be other people, in order to tell tales that didn’t really happen. The psychological effects of being strung out with stress in a climate of deliberate fiction and artifice surely provide workers with enough to endure without being preyed upon, too. By any assessment, film is a hall of mirrors… one perfectly designed to distort already enlarged personality traits out of all proportion, and amplify baser sensibilities to their ugliest extremes.

Organisational chaos

All of which comes with a heavy price when the dam bursts on decades’ worth of pent-up anger over industry-wide sexual harassment, and key figures’ reputations are destroyed at a stroke. In the fallout of the allegations – and the Twitter-driven ‘#metoo’ campaign they unleashed – we have seen Hollywood companies wrestle with serious organisational challenges as their carefully laid plans have spun into disarray. In just the single case of The Weinstein Company (TWC), for example:

  • one third of the board resigned in the days after the claims against its founder erupted;
  • Weinstein himself was fired from his position at the company’s helm, then resigned his seat on the board;
  • venture-capital firm Colony Capital – a leading backer – pulled the plug on its funding, with its executive chairman Thomas Barrack describing TWC as “a patient that’s dying on the table”;
  • advertising giant WPP – another backer – considered withdrawing its support, with its executive vice president Lance Maerov lukewarm about maintaining his TWC board seat;
  • TWC mulled a full-scale rebrand as a quick means of distancing itself from its errant founder.

They were only the start of Hollywood’s business shockwaves. Following allegations of sexual harassment and serious sexual assault against Kevin Spacey – which arose in the wake of the Weinstein flood – Sony announced that it would delete the actor from its finished, upcoming film All the Money in the World. The studio said that it would re-shoot all of Spacey’s scenes with a new actor, in a scramble tipped to cost more than $10m. At the same time, Netflix fired Spacey from its flagship drama House of Cards, and scrapped a feature film he’d completed with them. When allegations of sexual misconduct began to swirl around actor-comedian Louis CK, the release of his upcoming film I Love You Daddy was cancelled, and he was fired from a voice role on an animated feature for kids.

It’s no exaggeration to describe all of the above as organisational and financial chaos. This is the business cost of sexual harassment. If it is enabled and allowed to carry on undeterred, thereby feeding victims’ fury, don’t be surprised that when the powder keg finally explodes, organisations are left with shattered plans and significant expenses.

Responsible actors

When the chaos of sexual harassment impacts upon the future direction of a country, though, the organisational stakes are even higher – as we witnessed when the tide of #metoo allegations rolled towards Westminster, sweeping MP Michael Fallon from the role of defence secretary. Speculation raged over how Fallon’s departure would affect the composition and structural soundness of a UK government already damaged by an election misfire and infighting over Brexit.

As I explained recently, that Brexit issue is a pretty big deal. We could do without the consequences of sexual harassment throwing even more uncertainty into the already volatile process of negotiating our future relationship with Europe.

Yet amid all these concerns over organisational effects, we must always bear in mind that the human impacts and costs of sexual harassment are of paramount importance. They are the forces that are driving the juggernaut of allegations that, even as I write this, continues to train its full-beam headlights on more and more famous names. And as it rumbles on, the message must be that if organisations want to be free of the chaos and financial wreckage that sexual harassment leaves behind, they must urgently ensure that they are responsible actors in the arena of human experience.

Competitive instinct

What is at the root of this malaise? Well, as I pointed out in our September blog about the recent leadership crisis at Uber, culture decides whether the interpersonal relationships within an organisation stand or fall. Culture determines the quality of those relationships. Over the past few years, our clients – and many other organisations – have had to grapple with the question, “What is the ideal culture for us?” That has driven a lot of activity around establishing values and mission, plus how to live by them, and a host of competencies and skills associated with those initiatives.

In tandem with that, we have never been more regulated in business, whether internally or externally, than we do today. In addition to rules on sexual harassment, there are provisions for data protection, bullying and discrimination – we’re extremely PC about what we say to each other in the workplace and how we conduct ourselves. But somehow, it doesn’t seem to be enough. At the height of the #metoo campaign, I listened to a talk-radio phone-in where a female caller said that she didn’t know any woman who hasn’t been sexually harassed. It’s moments like that when you realise that this issue is far bigger than most of us think it is.

Considering how the harassment crisis has flowed around the world from the US, I see huge parallels between the #metoo watershed and the 2008 credit crunch. At that time, the initial wave of corporate failures in the financial industry concerned US firms with disastrous cultures, in which a ‘Win At All Costs’ mentality had mushroomed out of control – with the whole sector paying the price. It doesn’t take much to see from the way in which figures named in the #metoo campaign have allegedly tried to outwit and/or gag their accusers that the same mentality is fuelling this trend of sexual harassment.

With that in mind, leaders need to learn – fast – that the competitive instinct isn’t an all-consuming, be-all-end-all driver of their organisations’ success. What we desperately need right now is a consciousness-raising effort around what is often seen as the opposite of competitiveness – namely, collaboration – to ensure that workplace cultures are reined back into some sort of balance. In the workplace, we should all think ourselves responsible ‘to’ and ‘for’ each other.  In this respect, we must have each other’s backs. We should be free to say, “this behaviour will not  be tolerated in our organisation”; providing a climate in which personal accountability and dignity doesn’t just have more of a fighting chance, but is actively championed. It doesn’t mean that we have to stop being competitive. It simply means that we acknowledge that our duty of care to our people is as important as – and actually underpins – our strategic aims.

Find out about the workplace areas where Inemmo Leadership Development Solutions can deliver change

Image courtesty of Mihai Surdu, via Unsplash