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A Culture of Harassment? What Went Wrong at Uber, Tesla

Several large employers, including Uber and Tesla, made headlines recently when female employees went public with allegations of sexual Harassment in the workplace. They all described a culture where the harassment was systemic and ignored at every level—including Human Resources.sexual harassment

This kind of culture is allowed to persist when an organization lacks strong leadership, according to Kelly Smith-Haley, a partner at Fox, Swibel, Levin & Carroll LLP and an editor of the Illinois Employment Law Letter. To combat it, HR needs executive buy-in and customized antiharassment training, she says.

When Harassment Becomes ‘Pervasive’

A former Uber employee shared her story first, in a personal blog post published last month. Susan J. Fowler described how, when she complained to HR (and provided written proof) that a supervisor had propositioned her, the department refused to take action, saying he was a “high performer” and that it was his first offense. Uber offered the same response when more women complained about the same supervisor, always assuring complainants that their complaint was his “first offense,” Fowler said.

Fowler also alleged that when she complained about other instances of sex discrimination at Uber, she received “comically absurd” responses. For example, when she asked a director, during a meeting, what was being done about the dwindling number of female engineers at Uber, “his reply was, in a nutshell, that the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers,” she wrote. Eventually, her manager threatened to fire her if she complained about sex discrimination again and she quit.

A few days later, a current Tesla employee, in an interview with The Guardian, described a similar situation at her workplace. AJ Vandermeyden filed a lawsuit alleging that she and other female engineers were paid less and denied promotions even though they were as qualified as—or more qualified than—their male coworkers. She also said she was subjected to “pervasive harassment” such as inappropriate language, whistling, and catcalls. She told the newspaper that when complaints arise, Tesla generally responds that the company is focused on making cars and doesn’t have time to deal with such issues.

Both companies have since announced that they hired third parties to investigate the claims.

And it’s not just cutting-edge tech companies where this type of culture is allegedly allowed to exist. At the same time these claims came out, The Washington Post reported that about 250 employees at Sterling Jewelers, which owns Kay Jewelers and Jared The Galleria of Jewelry, have spoken up about harassment at the company.

Women were denied promotions or fired if they didn’t comply with supervisors’ sexual demands, the employees say. The employer knew what was going on and there were no consequences, they alleged as part of a larger complaint. Sterling has disputed the claims.

Cultivating Your Culture

So what kind of conditions enable this type of culture to begin—and spread? Lackluster leadership often is where it starts, Smith-Haley told BLR®. It also often involves a weak commitment to antiharassment efforts at the highest level of the company, she said.

To prevent a culture of pervasive harassment, HR needs to involve management in the process. “Companies that have effective harassment prevention efforts, and a workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, typically have support from the highest level of management of the company,” Smith-Haley said.

And then go back to the basics: “Train supervisors and managers so they know where to draw the line with employees in terms of tolerating off-color jokes and other offensive material,” she said. “When a complaint comes in, treat it seriously and investigate it. If harassment is discovered, take immediate and appropriate action.”

If harassment already is rampant in your workplace, you’ll need senior management’s buy-in to make a change, Smith-Haley said. Then, once everyone is on the same page, develop antiharassment training that is tailored to your workplace, rather than trying to use a “one size fits all” approach, she recommended. Finally, “train, and re-train, and re-train” middle managers and front-line supervisors. Training should happen at least annually and HR shouldn’t be afraid to try new approaches, rather than using the same program each year.

Accountability systems also are key, but merely having them in place isn’t enough. You must ensure that employees understand the process for reporting complaints, Smith-Haley said; and they need to know that the company is committed to its nonretaliation policy for those who report harassment or participate in an investigation.

Kate TornoneKate McGovern Tornone is an editor at BLR. She has almost 10 years’ experience covering a variety of employment law topics and currently writes for HR Daily Advisor and Before coming to BLR, she served as editor of Thompson Information Services’ ADA and FLSA publications, co-authored the Guide to the ADA Amendments Act, and published several special reports. She graduated from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., with a B.A. in media studies.

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A Culture of Harassment? What Went Wrong at Uber, Tesla


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