The “system” is stacked against finding out the truth regarding harassment in the workplace. You might know someone like this: A CEO follows a female employee into a supply closet to take advantage of her. Another time he shows pictures of naked women on the walls during a meeting. He is, at the same time, profane, abusive and vindictive. If you cross him, he either intimidates you into silence or fires you. The reason the deck is stacked in favor of this man is that he offers a totally different public face. He is known as a family man and a community leader. He has a pleasant public demeanor and people love him. No one believes that he has a dark side. Unknown to most people is that over the years several employees have filed harassment claims against him and the company. They were settled and sealed without any ability to let the public know what this person is really like.
As a CEO, and now executive coach, I see a scenario played out regularly. It goes something like this: (1) An employee makes a claim against the company and/or one of its employees. (2) The company investigates the claim. (3) The company finds the claim either unfounded or with merit. (4) If the company believes the claim is without merit, the CEO would likely want to go to court to get to the truth. (5) However, insurance companies and their legal teams talk the company into settling the claim, regardless of guilt. (6) If the claim has merit, the company moves quickly to settle and take action against the person who harassed the employee. In every instance there is a required confidentiality agreement where nobody is supposed to talk about the payoff or what happened. Supposedly, this is driven by a desire to protect the person who was harassed, as well as the company that was accused. Payoffs are big enough to ensure silence and protect all parties. The real outcome is that, in many instances, those individuals who are harassed get a bit of money, and the person who harassed them goes on to harass more people. Just like the story of the two-faced CEO.
What we have are insurance companies and a court system that have set the standard in most harassment cases as an out-of-court settlement with a confidentiality agreement. How can you blame anyone for wanting this outcome? Accusers are nervous, fearful for their jobs and afraid of repercussions. Those accused just want it over. The bias in this system is that companies settle regardless of being in the wrong or right. In our legal system, you are innocent until proven guilty. In this setting, the company is guilty until it can prove its innocence. To go to court to fight a claim costs a company more than $100,000. Nobody has the desire to spend time in court when you can settle for less. Additionally, our court system is so backed up that it might take months or years to get the case to a jury.
The current system and its standards have served to put a “cloak of silence” on harassment cases and have stacked the deck against ending a behavior that should never be accepted in any setting. It has protected individuals who are clearly lacking boundaries and character, while at the same time, permits them to move on and injure someone else. The good news about what has happened recently is that the accusers are breaking their silence, stepping outside of their confidentiality agreements and letting everyone know what has happened. This is an important step toward breaking the pattern and changing how we all look at any kind of discrimination.