The detailed and graphic harassment allegations surrounding disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein are not just limited to movie studios in Hollywood. Similar abusive behavior can be found regularly in Washington, DC, and Maryland, two local attorneys who specialize in harassment cases told SmartCEO.
These kinds of abusive behavior in the region are not just found among a few well-publicized scandals involving famous politicians. More routine workplaces in the region are also the scene for such mistreatment, the lawyers said.
“You have no idea how often and how similarly,” Kristin Alden, a Washington, DC,-based employment lawyer and principal of the Alden Law Group, said when asked about the frequency of these kinds of cases in the area. “Every day. Every kind of workplace.”
In recent days, allegations have surfaced that Weinstein harassed or sexually assaulted women – who often agreed to meet with him to discuss career opportunities in the movie business. For his part, Weinstein is planning to enter a rehab facility and a spokesperson says any sexual relations he had, with those who made public allegations against him, were consensual, and he never retaliated against any of the women, according to news reports.
Still, the board of The Weinstein Co. fired Weinstein after news of the allegations emerged. Vanity Fair reported that 28 women — many of them described by the magazine as “young, aspiring actresses” — claimed to have been either harassed or sexually assaulted by Weinstein.
“In Weinstein’s case, one of the women alleged that he masturbated in front of her. Another said he assaulted her,” Alden said. “We’ve represented so many women with similar stories.”
“Harassment of this type is … rampant in schools, car dealerships, stock brokerages, law firms, among long-haul truck drivers, in the national parks, in high tech firms, in grocery stores and every other workplace imaginable,” agreed Carolyn Wheeler, an employment attorney with Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, DC, and who formerly worked as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Wheeler further noted the quid pro quo nature “of Mr. Weinstein’s efforts to force women into sexual situations with him — alternately offering professional opportunities and threatening career obstacles to those who refused him – [represents] … the original, quintessential type of workplace harassment that the Supreme Court first recognized in the mid-80’s in [the] Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank [case],” Wheeler said.
In that case, a woman had sex with her boss to keep her job at a bank, and the Supreme Court ruled that forcing her into unwanted sex to keep her job constituted sex discrimination, according to Wheeler.
“Countless women in every type of job setting have been coerced or intimidated into providing sexual favors in exchange for getting or keeping a job, so the revelations about Mr. Weinstein’s conduct are certainly not surprising,” Wheeler added. “The only unusual feature of the allegations about Mr. Weinstein is the number of women now willing to come forward to describe abuse that occurred, in some cases, decades ago. As the journalists who broke the stories noted, women are often reluctant to report sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape in any setting and there are strong social and cultural disincentives to do so. Women fear that they will not be believed, that they will be blamed for whatever happened, and that their abusers or harassers will retaliate against them. Even in workplaces with policies against harassment, women have good reason to fear reprisal if they report harassment. But when one or two women speak out, others then feel empowered to tell their own stories, and that’s what appears to have happened here.”
“What is striking to me about this story is that the tone in the press and media is different than say, three years ago, when the Cosby scandal emerged,” Alden agreed. “We’ve been bombarded with so many similar stories in the past few years. Bill O’Reilly. [Donald] Trump. Roger Ailes. Uber. Now, Weinstein. With each of these stories, the American public is getting a better idea of how prevalent, pervasive and far-reaching sexual harassment is.”
“As the conversation progresses, the tone does, too,” she added. “I’m hearing less victim blaming. I get the sense is that women are feeling more secure in reporting these kinds of abuses and that the public is not attacking the victim as it has in the past.”
“This weekend [clothing designer] Donna Karan pulled back her victim-blaming comments,” Alden said. “Hopefully, the harassers are beginning to see that the public will not tolerate this conduct. And hopefully, the companies that shield the harassers are beginning to see that their failure to take action only condones and contributes to the problem.”
If advising a company, Alden recommends it take steps so the business can respond effectively to these kinds of issues.
Companies should have anti-harassment policies that include a complaint process and procedure for employees who feel that they are being harassed, Alden said.
“Then they need to follow the procedures, making sure that they take immediate and appropriate steps to eradicate harassment in the workplace. Employers will be held accountable if they are on notice of sexual harassment within their company but fail to take any action. This applies to any kind of harassment — racial, disability, sexual. It can be sexual harassment of the Weinstein type where the boss tries to get sexual favors. It can also be the kind where women are demeaned, marginalized, labelled, called names and ostracized,” Alden said.
Typically, in many workplaces, women who experience harassment “are terrified to speak up because of fear of how the harasser will react,” Alden said. She added that when women speak up “they put their careers and families at risk. You can’t blame them for being afraid. They need support and encouragement.”
Additionally, employees should make internal complaints if they have experienced harassment and their employer has relevant policies and procedures in place.
“Of course, that is very challenging if the harasser is the owner of the company or in a similar position of power,” Wheeler said. “In that situation, an employee needs other forms of support to navigate the process of getting protection from abuse and bringing the harassment to an end without sacrificing her job. If there are other women in the company who could act as advisors or mentors, the employee could ask them what she should do. But, realistically speaking, if the employer does not have a strong and independent human resources department that can provide protection against reprisal, we would advise employees experiencing workplace harassment to seek legal advice. Many people are tempted to just quit their job and walk away from a damaging situation but there are often legal remedies that can make that exit less economically destructive, and to negotiate such an exit an individual would ordinarily need legal representation.”
Looking at the big picture, Wheeler said the “only way” to prevent workplace harassment is to have “a true zero tolerance policy that is conveyed not only in words but in actions taken to discipline those who violate the policy against harassment.”
“Mr. Weinstein’s company obviously did not evince such a culture, as the allegations suggest that many people knew of his reprehensible conduct for many years but did nothing to prevent it or protect women from it,” she added. “Employers have to make clear to employees that complaints will be taken seriously and investigated impartially, and that there will be meaningful discipline when harassment has occurred. One of the most important features of any effective sexual harassment policy is that it guarantees there will be no retaliation against individuals who complain about harassment because the only way employers will learn about sexual harassment is if employees believe they will be protected if they complain.”
Alden’s advice to individual employees and even executives who are experiencing harassment? Talk with someone. This could include friends, relatives, spiritual advisors, therapists or even hotlines. They can also speak with an attorney. “Not necessarily to file a lawsuit, but to make sure you understand your rights and obligations under the law,” she said. “Be informed — but that doesn’t mean [to] be litigious.”
Based on recent news reports, the allegations involving Weinstein “provide graphic descriptions of contemptible behavior but the power dynamic that created the opportunity for Mr. Weinstein to abuse so many women are depressingly familiar,” Wheeler said.
“The critical thing to understand about sexual harassment and sexual violence against women is that it is not about sex, it is about exploiting a power dynamic,” Wheeler explained. “The imbalance of power between men in positions of authority and women who work for them potentially exists in any workplace.”