Paying the Price for Sexual Harassment

Posted in #MeToo,Sexual Harassment on February 6, 2018

By Alexis McKenna

February 6, 2018

The financial fallout from workplace sexual harassment is hard to calculate, but it’s potentially enormous and devastating for both victims and employers who pay the price for misconduct.

As more women emerge from the shadows, empowered by the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, the emotional and financial costs associated with these negative experiences are beginning to come into focus. As many as 85% of women reported incidents of sexual harassment at work, according to a 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Eighty percent of women who say they’ve been harassed leave their jobs within two years. We’re now beginning to see what happens to these women after they quit.

A study by a team of sociologists at Oklahoma State University looked at the impact that sexual harassment had on women in the early stages of their careers. The researcher found that suffering from sexual harassment at age 29-30 increases financial stress for victims in their early 30’s, which is largely caused by unexpected job changes.

Career disruption due to harassment can significantly alter a woman’s career path and scale back their professional ambitions, which can cause financial stress. The women who participated in the study reported that after suffering sexual harassment in the workplace, they pursued “less lucrative careers where they believed sexual harassment and sexist practices would be less likely to occur,” the researcher wrote. Escaping a hostile and abusive work environment is not easy and many cases go unreported because of the fear of losing income and having to start over with a stalled career.

The economic costs are also steep for companies facing lawsuits, which may involve multiple victims alleging misconduct by habitual perpetrators like the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.

In some cases, the company may choose to cut their losses and pay out secret settlements with non-disclosure agreements to keep the problem quiet. However, that strategy could easily backfire if the perpetrator remains at the company and continues to harass coworkers, which exposes the company to even greater liability. According to the New York Times, Weinstein reached six figure settlements with eight different women to avoid the cost of litigation. Fox news reportedly paid a total of $13 million to five women who worked or appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show.

That pales in comparison to the mammoth verdict obtained in 2012 by a California woman who was tormented and sexually harassed by surgeons and the medical staff in the cardiac surgery center at Mercy General in Sacramento. The 45-year-old former cardiac surgery physician assistant won a $168 million verdict in a sexual harassment lawsuit. The federal court jury awarded Ani Chopourian $125 million in punitive damages, $39 million for mental anguish and $3.5 million for lost wages and benefits resulting in the biggest employment verdict for a single employee in U.S. history.

Harassment creates a toxic work environment which impacts productivity. Every company should strive to prevent hostile sexual behavior and root out perpetrators. This will ultimately create a stronger business where employees feel valued and supported. It not only allows companies to attract better people, it helps bolster the bottom line.