Workplace Lessons from Movies: “Untouchable”

The first full documentary on the fall of film mogul Harvey Weinstein premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it can provide employers with an important reminder about the need to rid workplaces of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Untouchable” makes real the sexual assaults and degradation young women alleged against Weinstein. The interviews are painful to watch and a needed reminder of the harm caused by such behavior. While the film does not explore why executives were either oblivious to Weinstein’s behavior or afraid to act, it does show apparently decent people who now feel ashamed. They have no explanation for their failure to act.

The entertainment industry is unique from most workplaces. Based upon near-weekly reports, the entertainment industry still grants almost unlimited power to successful people. Unfortunately, while Hollywood may present the most glaring examples of employers engaging in sexual harassment, it would be foolish to think that such behavior could not occur in other workplaces.

But the problem is more deeply rooted in additional aspects of the traditional Hollywood work culture.

Harassment and Sexual Misconduct May be Part of a Broader Workplace Problem.

Sexual harassment prospered in an environment which accepted abusing subordinates. Another Sundance debut, Late Night, is a hilarious Devil Wears Prada – like story about a tyrannical talk show host, Emma Thompson, who terrorizes her faithful assistant, Mindy Kaling, the only women in the all-male writers’ room. One of the reasons the movie works is because the audience knows that this kind of workplace behavior actually happens.

Last year, the comedy, Set it Up, was based on interviews with numerous personal assistants in the entertainment industry. Audiences, especially former assistants, laughed at the obliviousness of the powerful female editor and the male investment manager, but their form of bad behavior is still too common. Why are we surprised that the thoughtless mistreatment of employees may evolve into harassment and discrimination?

Workplace Problems May Begin Small and Grow.

When I first began conducting harassment avoidance training, I used an analogy from my climbing days. We realized that most serious injuries and deaths occurred when someone got to close to an edge when they did not need to do so. We would draw a talc line about 6 feet from the edge. If you crossed the line, you either had to be tied off or in the process of climbing. Similarly, one does not focus on a black-and-white definition of unlawful harassment and avoid it. I once trained a group of young physicians and had to chide them for asking “would this be harassment?” questions in an effort to determine how far they could go without engaging in harassment. Instead, the focus should be on drawing the line 6 feet back and focusing on professional behavior.

Keep in mind that while egregious claims of sex harassment grab our attention, statistics show that employers face more claims of race discrimination and harassment than sexual harassment claims. How many of these claims occurred because supervisors mishandled employees and the employees ascribed the motive to their race … or to their age, national origin, age, or disability condition?

Takeaways.

With that background, here are some takeaways after viewing “Untouchable” and considering how the film can guide your workplace practices.

  1. Do not wait for harassment to occur. Train supervisors to act before bad behavior becomes bullying or harassment.
  2. Recognize that harassment is often about “power” and thus, it is not enough to train frontline supervisors and middle management. One must find ways to make the issue real to upper management, who, after all, has the most to lose.
  3. Involve upper management in training and discuss setting an example. Share lots of “horrobilia” about highly public claims of harassment, mainly against executives.
  4. Sadly, fear is useful in harassment avoidance training. People need to know what is at stake – make it personal. For example, describe how a claim of harassment could hit them in the pocketbook, or could even cost them their job.
  5. A failure to act is not solely a characteristic of Hollywood executives. Employers need to consider how to address this problem through leadership and training.
  6. Ponder how to make your internal reporting procedures practical and effective.
  7. Reporting procedures are worthless if they do not work.
  8. Do not limit anti-harassment and discrimination training to sex. Include bullying, which often spawns discrimination claims, and more chillingly, workplace violence.
  9. Invest in much more training for frontline supervisors, especially practical management training and instruction on dealing with people.
  10. Many of our blog readers are Safety Professionals. As we have explained before, safety professionals are constantly on the shop floor and often are the first to encounter workplace problems. Build a close relationship with the HR folks. They’ll love you.
  11. Surveys show that many employees still fear reporting sexual harassment because they’re afraid that the employer is not going to take it seriously, or they’re afraid that they’ll lose their job, be ridiculed, intimidated, shamed, or embarrassed by other employees. Use upper management to dispel these concerns.
  12. Take advantage of the many articles, alerts, seminars and webinars provided by Fisher Phillips and others.

Other Movie Information.

  • Some critics believe that the accomplished documentarian rushed Untouchable so as to be the first documentary on Weinstein and to achieve a symbolic release at the Sundance Film Festival, where Weinstein was a larger than life player. The movie has problems.
  • The worst extreme of Hollywood’s culture is illustrated by Karina Longworth’s Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes Hollywood, which painfully describes how a culture demeaning to women began in the California film industry.
  • Set it Up surprised people and was called one of the best creative romantic comedies of the last 10 years. See, Reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and Variety review. The movie is a Netflix product.
  • Late Night has been picked up by Amazon and even gathered a bit of early Oscar talk for Emma Thompson.

 

Howard

 

About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
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