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Business/Economy

Why some people get away with sexual harassment in the workplace – and how they were finally taken down

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: October 15, 2017
  • Published October 15, 2017

Harvey Weinstein. Roger Ailes. Bill O'Reilly. Uber executives. And maybe someone you know. How can these men not "get it?" How do they get away with sexually harassing those who work for them?

Easy — these men didn't have to "get it." They faced no consequences. Here's why:

The CEO/'star' exemption

More than 30 women accused the 65-year-old Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault. His sexual misconduct constituted an open secret, publicly joked about during the 2013 Oscars. Dozens of Weinstein's employees, including top executives, knew personally or anecdotally of Weinstein's conduct.

Who, however, could take on Weinstein — who owned his own company? One accuser described the balance of power as "me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10." Further, Weinstein enforced a code of silence, requiring employees to sign contacts that they would not criticize the company or its leaders in a way that could hurt his reputation.

Similarly, Bill Cosby allegedly is a serial abuser who sexually assaulted women across many years and cities. When a woman protested or sued, he and his attorneys lashed out against her with denials and defamation lawsuits. More than 50 women have accused the world famous and much-beloved Cosby, going back as far as 1969. Several have said they wondered: "who would believe me?"

And which of Ailes' accusers could survive the career-crushing consequences of taking on Fox News' chief executive officer or its star, Bill O'Reilly?

No monetary consequences

Fox News paid the women who accused Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly millions of dollars, even as they paid Ailes and O'Reilly millions in compensation. Weinstein's company settled at least eight lawsuits to protect him. Did harassment cost Ailes, O'Reilly or Weinstein? Not until the end.

Cover up

Four months after an Uber engineer alleged that the company's human-resources team systematically ignored sexual harassment complaints, external attorneys investigated 215 separate sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation and bias cases.

The result — the company fired 20 employees, issued "final warnings" to another seven and gave 31 others remedial training.

When "Fox and Friends" anchor Gretchen Carlson complained to her supervisor about her co-host, Ailes called her a "man hater" and demoted her. Although many at Fox knew Ailes frequently made inappropriately sexual remarks, Fox's culture prevented others from coming forward.

Who, after all, can stand up for the woman — or man — protesting a senior executive's harassment? Not the HR officer several power rungs lower than the executive.

Rationalization

Weinstein reportedly told the women he harassed that "this is how it's done in Hollywood." He told others his interactions had been consensual. When he finally asked Hollywood stars to protest his firing, he rationalized that he'd grown up in the '60s. In a televised interview he offered the excuse that "everyone makes mistakes."

Similarly, board members and investors rationalize harassers' actions, citing the bottom-line results senior executives accused of harassment bring to their companies.

What brings them down?

Comedian Hannibal Buress kindled the media firestorm against Bill Cosby when a clip of his jokes went viral, leading dozens of victims to publicly accuse Cosby of assault.

Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler's 2,910-word blog post detailing sexism and harassment triggered the investigation that led to the termination of 20 employees and three executives, including Uber's CEO, when it went viral.

It took a lawsuit to end Roger Ailes' 20-year reign. Carlson prevailed in her lawsuit in part because she secretly recorded Ailes saying he thought she and he should have a sexual relationship and because her lawyer sued Ailes personally and not Fox News. Ultimately, more than two-dozen women accused Ailes of sexual harassment and spoke out against Fox News' culture of misogyny and hush money.

A media firestorm and advertisers' abandonment of his shows led Fox News' executives to withdraw support from O'Reilly.

How do some get away with sex harassment? They have power that immunizes them from consequences. Ultimately, however, they can be brought down.

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