Portrait of a Superstar Harasser: The Weinstein Phenomenon in Today’s Workplace


Coverage of multiple accusations against movie giant Harvey Weinstein have been making headlines all month; it’s not surprising, considering some of the A-list celebrities who are coming forward with allegations. Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Ashley Judd all came forward to speak out about Weinstein and his actions; according to the New Yorker, Weinstein’s behavior was a poorly-kept secret with many victimized women silenced by contractual agreements, legal threats and other punitive measures.

The typical workplace may not have the allure and mystique of Hollywood, but the same rules often apply. Superstar sales leaders, managers and other “too big to confront” could cause big problems for your team and your workplace if you are not aware of them. Even a single accusation of sexual harassment that is not properly addressed could be devastating for the employee affected, and for your workplace. Some statistics suggest that 70 percent of people who are harassed at work never report it.  And this figure is even higher when the harasser is a workplace “superstar.”

The EEOC recently recognized this problem in its 2016 Report from the Select Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace:

Employers may find themselves in a position where the harasser is a workplace “superstar.” By superstar, think of the high-earning trader at an investment bank, the law firm partner who brings in lucrative clients, or the renowned professor or surgeon. Some of these individuals, as with any employee, may be as likely to engage in harassment as others. Often, however, superstars are privileged with higher income, better accommodations, and different expectations. That privilege can lead to a self-view that they are above the rules, which can foster mistreatment. Psychologists have detailed how power can make an individual feel uninhibited and thus more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors. In short, superstar status can be a breeding ground for harassment.

When the superstar misbehaves, employers may perceive themselves in a quandary. They may be tempted to ignore the misconduct because, the thinking goes, losing the superstar would be too costly. They may wager that the likelihood or cost of a complaint of misbehavior is relatively low and outweighed by the superstar’s productivity. Some employers may even use this type of rationale to cover or retaliate for a harasser.

Employers should avoid the trap of binary thinking that weighs the productivity of a harasser solely against the costs of his or her being reported. As a recent Harvard Business School study found, the profit consequences of so-called “toxic workers” – specifically including those who are “top performers” – is a net negative. Analyzing data on 11 global companies and 58,542 hourly workers, the researchers found that roughly one in 20 workers was fired for egregious company policy violations, such as sexual harassment. Avoiding these toxic workers, they found, can save a company more than twice as much as the increased output generated by a top performer. As a result, the study urged employers to “consider toxic and productivity outcomes together rather than relying on productivity alone as the criterion of a good hire.” No matter who the harasser is, the negative effects of harassment can cause serious damage to a business. Indeed, the reputational costs alone can have serious consequences, particularly where it is revealed that managers for years “looked the other way” at a so-called “superstar” harasser.

In Weinstein’s case, he got away with sexual harassment for decades, because employees were intimidated or afraid to make a case against him.

To what end? Weinstein has been fired. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has expelled him from its membership.  The company he built is in chaos.  From every angle, the decision to stand by while this superstar harasser wrecked his havoc did nothing but set the stage for disaster across the board.

Workplace Culture to Combat Harassment

Not all harassment is obvious, and confronting misbehavior is always hard – particularly so when the person accused is a powerful or important figure in the workplace.  Creating a culture where employees are encouraged to come forward starts at the top.

Workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment.”  In this context, culture comes from two things:  First there must be “leadership and commitment to a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace in which harassment is simply not acceptable is paramount.”  Second, there must be systems that “hold employees accountable for this expectation.  . . .   These two sides of the coin – leadership and accountability – create an organization’s culture.

Culture is what tells employees how they can and should behave when no one is watching.

“If leadership values a workplace free of harassment, then it will ensure that harassing behavior against employees is prohibited as a matter of policy; that swift, effective, and proportionate responses are taken when harassment occurs; and that everyone in the workplace feels safe in reporting harassing behavior. Conversely, leaders who do not model respectful behavior, who are tolerant of demeaning conduct or remarks by others, or who fail to support anti-harassment policies with necessary resources, may foster a culture conducive to harassment.”

There are many ways that leadership can work towards a culture that does not foster harassment:

  • Great interactive training, tailored for employees and also for management, that follows the latest research on effective harassment training.
  • Solid policies with reporting procedures that are clear and allow employees several options for reporting misbehavior.
  • A robust commitment to investigating misconduct complaints, whether internally with trained HR staff or by using external investigators.
  • A protocol for proactive prevention of retaliation.
  • And most importantly, leadership needs to lead by example.

Reach out to us anytime for advice about how to improve your workplace, with tailored training or strategic interventions.  If you face a complaint, we can help you decide if you can investigate it with your own resources or whether you should consider using an impartial third-party investigator like us.

Initial consultations on all of these kinds of things are always free.  Reach out today if you need help.  Your problems are our passion.