Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s career has fallen apart following devastating New York Times allegations of improper sexual conduct towards female colleagues in the film industry.

According to the NYT, Weinstein had paid out hush money to several accusers for decades to maintain his powerful position and influence in a notoriously cut-throat field. However, his Weinstein Company colleague Lauren O’Connor eventually noted in a memo, “There is a toxic environment for women at this company.”

One alleged victim who spoke to the NYT was actress Ashley Judd, who accused Weinstein of asking her to massage him during what was intended to be a business meeting at a Beverly Hills hotel. Since the NYT’s original article emerged, the claims have snowballed, with actresses Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow also alleging that they had suffered distasteful advances from the mogul. Rose McGowan and Lysette Anthony, meanwhile, have made particularly serious allegations.

For the Weinstein Company, the results have been catastrophic – not just in the realm of public relations, but in the very fabric of the organisation. Weinstein himself has been forced to leave the firm, following a vote of no confidence from the all-male board. Following that vote, one third of the board promptly exited, too.

The scandal is also threatening to snuff out an investment stake in the organisation from advertising giant WPP – whose executive vice president Lance Maerov sits on the Weinstein Company’s board – and the firm is now mulling a rebrand to distance itself from the name of its accused founder. All of which shows that even press coverage of an executive’s sexual harassment allegations can have a seismic effect upon a company’s intrinsic structure. How should leaders ensure that conduct of this nature never emerges within their organisations?

The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The only solution here is to have absolutely zero tolerance for anything that could be remotely construed as sexual harassment. Banter, or jokes, or anything of a sexual nature should not be said, countenanced, or tolerated as acceptable, between people of different levels in an organisation. The power imbalance is such that it is not funny. It is not banter. There is something potentially much more threatening and insidious about it.

Cooper acknowledges that work is one of the main locations in which people find their partners. As such, she says: “It’s not a question of saying that we should all go to work with a sort of sexually neutral attitude that removes all the fun of the workplace and shuts down the possibilities for meeting potential partners. It’s a matter of thinking very clearly and carefully about the nature of the conversations you have with people who are not on the same level as you, and setting the appropriate boundaries.”

She notes: “It’s never okay under any circumstances to stray over that line. And I think that the social group that is particularly vulnerable to the people who will cross those boundaries is young girls who join the workforce with an eagerness to please, make their mark and progress. If the culture of the organisation is such that they see this behaviour happening, then they will start to accept it. So somebody has to champion the opposite.

“I once heard of an example from a very large organisation, which shall remain nameless, in which a new graduate was having an affair with her boss, and when somebody reported it to HR, the department’s response was that it was nothing to do with them. For anyone to say that at all is dreadful – but coming from HR, it’s outrageous. This is to do with everybody in the organisation.”

Cooper adds: “By the same token, we have to be mindful of how accusations can be used maliciously. I say that with a touch of caution, because it is well known that those who abuse boundaries frame accusations as malicious in efforts to secure an ‘out’, and create the impression that their accusers can’t be believed or trusted. But overall, managers are protecting themselves by ensuring that they’re part of a culture in which there’s absolutely zero tolerance for abusive behaviour. If that is the case, then if it does occur, it will stand out as so egregious and inappropriate that everybody will be shocked, and notice it.”

 

For further thoughts on ethical leadership, check out these learning resources from the Institute

 

Image of Harvey Weinstein courtesy of Sam Aronov, via Shutterstock