Why employers ignore abuse complaints

Harvey Weinstein may get kicked out of the Oscar club

An allegation of abuse or harassment threatens not just the managers concerned but also the way the organization sees itself. All enterprises have a purpose, an ethos, what we have come to call a corporate culture. Suggesting that mission is flawed threatens not only the organization’s leaders, but its employees too.

We devote most of our waking hours to working for our organizations. If someone suggests that everything we are doing is built on managers’ nefarious behavior, what does it say about us that we are putting up with it? Those who speak out often find that their fellow workers prefer not to know.

When those who complain get nowhere, “a subtle complicity evolves among the other employees,” an article in the Academy of Management Executive journal said. That complicity compounds the other employees’ shame at not speaking out, and makes it less likely that they will do so in future.

Analyzing “deaf ear” syndrome, the article, by a group of academics at the University of North Carolina, compares companies that close ranks against complainants to narcissists “who need to maintain a positive self-image and engage in ‘ego-defensive’ behavior to preserve their self-esteem”.

If the misbehavior does come out, the article says, the damage to the organization is often extensive — in compensation payments, the departure of senior employees and reputational damage.

Does the recent flood of allegations mean people will be more willing to speak up?

Well, that Academy of Management article appeared in 1998, nearly 20 years ago. It followed a string of sexual abuse scandals at Mitsubishi, the U.S. Army and the U.S. branch of Astra, the pharmaceuticals company that is now part of AstraZeneca. In the biggest settlement at that time, “Mitsubishi agreed to pay $34 million to several hundred women who had alleged unheeded claims of sexual harassment over a period of years”, the article said.

Yet here we are again, with serious allegations against, among others, Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Company, and Kevin Spacey, former artistic director of London’s Old Vic theater.

Will things change? Will those who suffer abuse be readier to speak up, and are managers more likely to believe them and take action? One can hope so. But organizations’ drive to protect themselves and their own self-image will not go away.

Real change would require independent third parties that people can report to, and impartial hearings. With trade union membership falling and access to legal representation increasingly out of reach of ordinary people, complaining remains as daunting a first step as ever.

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This article originally appeared on the Financial Times.

Source : cnbc.com

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