Abuse of Power: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
By Michael Marquardt and Claire DeMatteis, Esq.
It has taken a generation. Twenty-six years after Anita Hill gave voice to sexual harassment in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991, women who previously concealed incidents of workplace sexual harassment now feel empowered to come forward against powerful and well-known men in the entertainment and media industries, elected officials and business leaders.
At its core, fueling the #MeToo movement is outrage over gender discrimination and blatant abuse of power – outrage that took women decades to find their voice and courage to protest.
The #MeToo movement is prompting corporations, small businesses, as well as state and federal government agencies to enforce existing policies prohibiting sexual harassment and holding offenders accountable. Boards of Directors must be vigilant in holding management to the highest ethical standards to enforce sexual harassment policies. Directors must set the tone from the very top to adopt and enforce protections against workplace sexual harassment – whether the company operates in a single city, across several states, or across continents.
Human Resource executives are critical to conducting prompt, thorough investigations with swift, consistent punishment. What we need now more than ever is open dialogue and communication between men and women in the workplace to address these issues. And this cultural change must start at the top, with CEOs openly discussing how important it is that everyone in the company is treated with dignity, is valued as a contributor – and that abuse of power and gender discrimination are not tolerated. Furthermore, human resources departments must renew and enforce clear policies on sexual harassment, abuse and retaliation. They must make employee sexual harassment training mandatory to educate both the accused perpetrator and the potential victim.
Reactions to the #MeToo movement in the United States vary among European and Asian cultures. With the current, divisive political climate in the United States, one reaction in European countries, unfortunately, is best described by the German word “Schadenfreude” (a sense of satisfaction at someone else’s misfortune). That is, with allegations of sexual harassment from numerous women against the President of the United States, it is not surprising such negative things are being exposed throughout American society. Most cultures agree, however, that when a “power imbalance” exists — specifically, when a person’s career can be irreparably damaged by another in power — any tolerance for sexual misconduct is inexcusable.
No matter the culture or attitude toward sexual expression in the workplace, organizations now must take steps to prevent the abuse of power. It is encouraging to see companies such as Microsoft remove language in its employees’ contracts that barred them from filing suit over workplace sexual harassment claims. Previously, employees were subject to mandatory arbitration, a private process that can hide the identities of repeated perpetrators and make it much more difficult to file, prove and seek redress of a sexual harassment claim.
As we seize this moment to truly address sexual harassment issues in the workplace, future generations will benefit from the difficult conversations we are having today as we strive toward greater gender equality and fairer treatment of women in the workplace.
Claire DeMatteis is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Delaware in Women & Gender Studies. She serves as Executive Vice President and Chief Counsel of Global Kompass Strategies, Inc.. She previously has served as General Counsel for two multi-billion corporations and as Senior Counsel to then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden. Follow Claire on Twitter at @ClaireCounsel.