This is why HR didn’t stop Harvey Weinstein

Weinstein sexual harassment
Girard Dorney


written on October 12, 2017

Ideally the HR departments at Miramax and the Weinstein Company would have reported on and curbed the sinister behaviour of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein decades ago. But blaming HR ignores the scope of the problem.

Though the testimonies of actors have made for the biggest headlines, the original report on Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment was filled with allegations made by former employees. As reported by the New York Times, allegations against Weinstein go back as far as 1991 when, former employee Laura Madden was “prodded” for massages.

In 2015, employee Lauren O’Connor wrote a memo to executives at the Weinstein Company saying “there is a toxic environment for women at this company,” according to the same article. The memo included a report of a female assistant being coerced into giving Weinstein a massage while he was naked, and becoming distraught and crying as a result.

Some accounts of Weinstein’s behaviour were taken to HR, others weren’t. But the question has been asked, why didn’t HR stop Harvey Weinstein’s harassment?

A company that enables a predator

HRM has written before about the difficult position HR is placed in when people at the top of a company are the problem. But this case is an extreme example of that.

It’s one thing to persuade senior executives that another senior executive has troubling values, it’s quite another to convince leadership at the Weinstein Company that Harvey Weinstein should go. The board was a group of men (and only men) that included Bob, Harvey’s brother.

As the story of O’Connor shows, even when they were alerted to serious allegations, the response from on top was to let Weinstein reach an independent settlement. They then avoided any further investigation once the complaint to HR was dropped.

It’s reasonable to say that Weinstein had a tremendous amount of power in his organisations, a pattern of harassment he seems to have repeated for years, and a reputation for attempting to ruin the careers of any and all accusers. Such a person does not hire, fund or structure an HR department that is going to be an effective impediment to his behaviour.

As the New Yorker reported, “employees described what was, in essence, a culture of complicity at Weinstein’s places of business, with numerous people throughout the companies fully aware of his behaviour but either abetting it or looking the other way.” Indeed, one female executive said employees didn’t complain to HR “because everything funnelled back to Harvey.”

It’s easy to draw a damning picture of what Weinstein thought of his companies’ role in his life. The New Yorker article states he would tactically use employees to “make the victims feel safe.” There is also an accusation that he employed someone to “take care of Weinstein’s women needs, among other things” and organise “evenings with ‘Russian escorts’”. This person had a different job title but no film experience. The role paid $400,000 for less than a year of work.

A culture that enables a predator

But the issue goes deeper than any single company.

Harvey Weinstein’s alleged pattern of targeting women with less power than him for sexual abuse was, for decades, an “open secret”. In other words, it was a fact the US film industry agreed to pretend it didn’t know.

Only now, because enough brave women have come forward to make that doublethink appear as horrible as it always was, are we seeing a change.

Looking back, it’s disturbing just how open the secret was. A joke was made about it at the 2013 Oscar nominations, and the audience laughed heartily, proving they understood the premise. If his behaviours were in any way a real secret, the punchline would have fallen on confused ears. More than a few reports have surfaced detailing just how well known Weinstein’s history was.

For people in the industry, outing Weinstein may not be their responsibility. But it’s not as though they were required to work with him, and thereby aid his behaviour.

The problem goes beyond the industry. Certainly for the media, it’s unethical to move forward on a story without victims who are willing to go on the record. But that doesn’t explain years of positive press, and accusations of quashing stories.

On the one hand, society applauds women who come forward in cases like this as brave truth tellers. You can get the general impression that things are changing for the better. On the other hand, as a different story from the NYTimes shows, the response from some people is troubling:

“In Silicon Valley, some male investors have declined one-on-one meetings with women, or rescheduled them from restaurants to conference rooms. On Wall Street, certain senior men have tried to avoid closed-door meetings with junior women. And in TV news, some male executives have scrupulously minded their words in conversations with female talent.”

Obviously the answer isn’t to deny more junior employees the relationships that will help them rise to higher positions. The answer is to not sexually harass anybody.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a high standard from HR, and to call out HR professionals to be brave and confront these issues when they arise. But it should also be remembered that some cultural problems run deep and society-wide.

Have an HR question? Access AHRI:ASSIST resources for HR guidelines, checklists and policy templates on different HR topics. Exclusive to AHRI members.

Photo credit: david_shankbone via Visual Hunt / CC BY

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6 thoughts on “This is why HR didn’t stop Harvey Weinstein

  1. The HR industry doesn’t provide a corporate framework that protects anyone if the person is powerful enough. It can talk all it likes but the walk doesn’t exist when faced with pursuing any transgression of the people that employ them. All women and men that have had their legitimate complaints quashed by “the company” ie HR, have been let down horrifically and it’s this that grants us worker bees the permission to view corporate HR as a guard dog for executive bad behaviour, not a watchdog for all the employees of said company. Only the HR industry can change this pervasive view, though no one really believes anyone in a well paid HR job will make such a point at the cost of their career. Therefore it’s a poison chalice for any ethical youngster looking for a career.

  2. Yes, and it doesn’t help when such persons are protected by powerful politicians. As you state, Weinstein’s behaviour was well known for years, yet this didn’t stop Hilary Clinton gladly taking his money and support. We have an analogous situation occurring right in front of our eyes here in Australia. That’s right, I am talking about the elephant in the room – the CFMEU. This week has seen further allegations of the most vile behaviour occurring at CFMEU protests which has been met with the same gutless and hypocritical response by ALP politicians and other union leaders. Senior female politicians and union leaders are refusing to condemn this behaviour and to disassociate themselves from this Union. They continue to take their donations, thereby tacitly supporting galling behaviour while having the temerity to lecture to all and sundry about respecting women and reducing violence in society. They are an absolute disgrace

  3. Until the owners and Directors of businesses have a reason to accept that the risk of keeping a predator in their company is greater than any value they might bring, HR has very limited power to change anything. If we raise such issues and the company chooses to do nothing, we either have to accept what is going on, or resign. We have no protection under law for resigning in such circumstances.

    If the Fair Work Act provided protection for whistle-blowers and very strong penalties for individual business owners and directors for turning a blind eye, then – only then, this may change.

  4. What happens when HR is the perpetrator of the bullying, conniving and victimisation and targets those who challenge them and then senoir management denies that it’s happening and claims that it’s simply a personality clash? Where do you go then, especially if your also in HR?

  5. HR is usually held accountable for company culture – guarding it or changing it. It has always surprised me as leadership and management are responsible. Why do we (HR) hold ourselves accountable for what isn’t in our power?

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