Dignity isn’t optional

Last week’s rolling fatberg of a story featured a Hollywood mogul’s repeatedly obnoxious and fundamentally unacceptable (illegal) behaviour. I can’t imagine there is anyone that isn’t up to date with the story – widely reported – so I won’t go into the story. But here’s the summary;

Powerful man preys on less powerful women in industry for his personal gain.

Who knew?

There are multiple things that stand out for me in the story, but most prominently is the negligent inaction of so many men and women that stood by and let it happen. Who, without any shadow of doubt, are complicit.

I heard an interview with George Clooney who stated they were all aware that the guy in a question was a “womaniser”, but no one knew it was this bad. I’ve seen actresses that have significant power and global influence stand up and recount their stories years after – allowing multiple repetitions of inappropriate behaviour. I’ve read stories of actresses decades ago being warned to avoid certain situations.

Don’t give me the line that his power was overwhelming, I repeat: they were all complicit. 

It reminds me of a situation that I investigated in the past – an incident at a Christmas party between a senior male employee and a much more junior female employee. The actions were portrayed as innocuous, and between two people of the same age in a different context they could well have been so.

But this was a work context, with a significant difference in power, age and experience. And for me they were far from innocuous entirely because of those facts. As we investigated it became clear that the people who’d talked about the events in the corridors and over water coolers suddenly, “hadn’t seen anything”. I’m proud to say we stood our ground nonetheless and took action.

In the weeks that followed, as the rumour mills rolled, several senior colleagues of both genders told me that the guy had a bit of a reputation, that he was well known for acting inappropriately for years and that they weren’t surprised. None of these colleagues had anything to fear from stepping forward at any point. So why hadn’t they?

Let me put this really clearly, where inappropriate behaviour happens in the workplace and you standby, you are allowing it to happen. The movie industry is an unusual one, that mixes work and leisure in an unnatural way but nobody is trying to claim that his advances on women weren’t work related. That’s why he was sacked. And it can and does happen in any work place.

It is beholden on all of us to make a stand – particularly those of us in leadership positions, regardless of our gender. Everyone should be able to go about their lawful work, without fear of intimidation, harassment or assault. That’s not a high bar to set, it’s a basic human right.