Why sexual harassers keep offending

One of the many major problems with sexual harassment in the workplace: It happens more than once.

Harvey Weinstein isn’t the only alleged sexual harasser who has been accused of multiple offenses, over the course of several years. It’s a pattern pervasive among many professions and vocations, including college professors, coaches and priests in the Catholic Church. Actual data on the number of harassers is thin at best, but the social media campaign #metoo suggests hundreds of thousands, or even millions of women have experienced harassment in the workplace.

One major reason why repeat offenders can continue harassing for years: Some employers are reluctant to share information about a sexual harasser because they are embarrassed it took them so long to fire him, said Paula Brantner, a senior adviser at Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit based in Maryland. And they may also be protecting themselves against any potential legal action by current and former employees who may have been harassed.

Another reason companies don’t act on complaints or even protect the alleged harasser: There is no database of individuals who have been offenders, said a spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group. Sometimes the behavior might come up during a reference check-process, she said.

But it might not otherwise be identified, Brantner said. Employers also currently have no legal obligation to report sexual harassers, she said.

And so the harasser gets to reinvent himself. Rumor and innuendo isn’t enough to stop the predatory behavior, judging by Harvey Weinstein’s three decades of alleged systematic mistreatment of women. If sexual harassers have committed crimes, it may show up in public records, but internal disciplinary action from previous employers never becomes public.

And the use of non-disclosure agreements — which some of Weinstein’s employees have signed — helps maintain the secrecy. Some 85% of people who are sexually harassed never file a formal legal charge, according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, a government agency that enforces laws that prohibit workplace discrimination.

Employers should examine their “moral obligation” to be honest about the harasser’s past behavior with employers who contact them as references, Brantner said. There is still a “culture of silence” that sometimes allows alleged harassers take new jobs, Brantner said. That moral reason may be given a nudge by the recent empowerment of those who have been victims of sexual assault or harassment on social media.

Sometimes the accuser faces retaliation

Instead, the person targeted for harassment is the one that faces retaliation and being blackballed in their profession, when it should be the harasser,” Brantner said. “Why isn’t it that person, who has trouble finding a job and trouble ascending in their profession? We have to flip the culture.”

Employees, especially women, sometimes share information with one another about harassers they’ve worked with, Brantner said. In fact, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, women who work in media anonymously compiled a document of men they had complaints about. But that type of information should be brought “out into the open,” Brantner said, when possible.

Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o said in a New York Times op/ed that she wished she had known there were other women in the business she could speak with, during her own interactions with Harvey Weinstein. “There is clearly power in numbers,” she wrote.

“We can’t keep going through these scandals without seeing some positive results,” Brantner said. Workplace Fairness is “working on ways to maybe change” the lack of resources about those who have been previous offenders, she said.

Employers are responsible for doing due diligence

Of course, employers are responsible for doing due diligence and background checks as much as possible to not let a harasser into their workplace, said Laura Palumbo, the communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit based in Harrisburg, Penn.

But often the harasser is a man, and he has power, money and more decisions when it comes to who gets fired, and who gets hired. Even “advanced” societies still feature mostly men in positions of power, wrote Suzanne Moore in a recent op/ed in The Guardian. “It is easier and more profitable to be a misogynist than not,” she wrote. “It is easiest of all not to think at all.”

There are still more men than women in many high-profile industries in the U.S., including politics, finance and media. All of these are reasons for workplaces to be as diligent as possible about monitoring their employees’ behavior, whether or not they previously were harassers, Palumbo said.

“In a workplace where sexual harassment isn’t taken seriously, or where there are significant power disparities, it goes unaddressed.”

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