insight magazine

Hurt of Harassment

When workplace harassment goes overlooked, victims and organizations suffer the consequences. By CLARE FITZGERALD | Spring 2018


Sexual harassment cases in the entertainment, media, and political spheres have dominated headlines recently, but workplace harassment has long been pervasive across industries, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields. And accounting and finance hasn’t been an exception.

As the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements bring renewed attention to sexual harassment and gender inequality, organizations across America are working to root out the attitudes and mentalities that drive hostile and inappropriate behavior. But they’ll need to do more than update anti-harassment policies to do that. Creating safe environments for employees also requires understanding the psychology of harassers, addressing power disparities that commonly drive workplace harassment, and fostering cultures of trust and respect.


The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. According to Eugene Hollander, a Chicago-based attorney with experience in sexual harassment cases, behavior that constitutes sexual harassment can range from seemingly harmless sexual jokes or comments to aggressive groping, touching, or displaying pornographic images in the workplace — and everything in between.

Harassment can occur anywhere, by anyone, in any organization. What many employers also mistakenly overlook is that they can be held liable for harassment experienced by employees from someone outside of their organization, such as vendors or clients.

But in most workplaces, harassment is driven by and revolves around an imbalance of power, according to Dr. Jessica Lippman, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist. “The perpetrator holds the key to moving up, so the victim’s choices are either to submit and be exploited to advance, or resist and risk not advancing or facing retaliation,” she explains, noting that women are the victims in most harassment cases. “It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Often, harassment starts in a non-threatening manner but escalates quickly into aggressive behavior. “The perpetrator sees the victim as being vulnerable. He might start by complimenting her work and offering to help with her career. Perpetrators make their victims feel special. It’s all part of the seduction. They often are very charming, and they use that charm to manipulate,” Lippman says.

In addition to having manipulative personalities, Lippman says narcissism is a common trait among sexual harassers. “They have an inflated view of themselves and their talents, and they can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t welcome their advances,” she says. “They have an enormous sense of entitlement, but also a deep need for approval. It’s the narcissist’s secret that they need to defend against not being special at all costs.”

Because they see themselves as special, sexual predators often have a Machiavellian attitude; the means justify the ends, which allows them to disengage morally and find ways to justify their behavior, Lippman explains. Another common trait is a lack of empathy. “They are dismissive of other people’s feelings and careless toward their victims,” she says.

But power is their ultimate weapon, and they are driven by a desire to dominate and control. Knowing that they hold power, Lippman says harassers won’t hesitate to disparage anyone who calls them out as inappropriate. And in the past, perpetrators in positions of power knew that they wouldn’t get called out. “People are obedient to authority,” Lippman stresses. “They may not like what’s going on, but in many cases, they won’t do anything to stop it.”


Harassment can be a festering problem, and the effects on employee morale and productivity can be devastating to business. Toxic environments increase workplace stress, and often lead to increased absenteeism and turnover. Despite increasing pleas for action, many victims would still rather leave than report being harassed. “Victims don’t want to be labeled, ignored, or not believed. So, they suck it up and it affects their performance, or they leave, because they know they can’t work in such a hostile environment,” Lippman explains.

In addition to the human costs, reputational and financial risks to organizations can be steep. According to Hollander, a variety of damage claims can be brought in a sexual harassment case against an employer, such as pain and suffering, mental anguish, and compensatory damages, which can quickly add up to costly payouts. And although compensatory and punitive damage awards in federal sexual harassment claims are capped, state claims are not. If a victim brings a negligent supervision claim, for example, and the facts suggest that an employer knew about the harassment and swept it under the rug or did nothing to stop it, a company could face a federal sexual harassment claim and a state claim. “A jury could award hundreds of thousands of dollars in such cases, and that can be crippling for many businesses,” Hollander warns.


Employers are responsible for maintaining a safe environment and protecting employees from any behavior that could cause physical or psychological harm. Plante Moran, a Midwest-based accounting, tax, and consulting firm, refers to that responsibility as creating a “jerk-free culture,” according to Diana Verdun, director of human resources. “We want to create an environment that shouldn’t and doesn’t have problems with workplace harassment,” she says, noting for Plante Moran, achieving that goal starts with hiring people who fit in with the firm’s culture and values.

Strong anti-harassment policies, clear reporting mechanisms, and comprehensive training also are key to ensuring that employees understand what constitutes harassment, how to report it, and the consequences of any inappropriate behavior. Plante Moran includes workplace harassment training as part of its onboarding process and incorporates more advanced training as people move into managerial and supervisory roles. “We educate our people on this topic throughout their careers, so they know how to manage through any issues and how to handle any concerns,” Verdun explains.

Maintaining an atmosphere where people feel comfortable talking about sensitive topics also is important. “We always try to acknowledge that the whole person comes to work, and that people have things on their minds that they should feel comfortable talking about. We don’t want people to think they have to check their concerns at the door,” Verdun says. “Building an environment of trust gives people confidence that any concerns they have will be taken seriously and investigated.”

Although organizations need to have clear codes of conduct, rules will always be broken. As Hollander notes, “The world is made up of all sorts of humans, and people are still going to do what they’re going to do.”

That’s why employers need to be prepared to take immediate action if an issue does arise. “Anti-harassment policies are important, but they need to have teeth,” Lippman says. “Companies can host town hall meetings and talk about values, but people have to see what they’re saying isn’t just rhetoric. Women have to feel that they will be heard, that their claims will be investigated, and that there will be consequences if someone crosses the line. Companies need to show that harassment won’t be tolerated, and they need to be clear about what will happen if they find out that an employee is being harassed. And it can’t just be a slap on the wrist.”

Plante Moran adds weight to its zero-tolerance policies with support from the top. “If evidence shows that someone at our firm is doing something that falls into ‘jerk’ behavior, then that person simply will not be with the firm anymore, regardless of his or her position. Public accounting firms have many owners, and it’s important that they all agree with that philosophy.”

Ultimately, though, policies and education can only go so far. Eliminating hostile attitudes and power imbalances in corporate America will mean promoting more women into the executive ranks. The accounting and finance industry continues to struggle on that front, leaving it vulnerable to reputational harm if change isn’t made. Plante Moran and many other notable firms have instituted women leadership programs and have increased their numbers of female partners. Many are also working to highlight the benefits of a diverse workforce, but there’s still progress to be made in this profession.

“We need to understand the value of the differences that people bring,” Verdun says. “While we work really hard at getting this right, we’re always learning from our staff and others in the marketplace to ensure we’re continuing to improve in these areas. It all comes down to respecting each other as humans and creating environments in which everyone can excel.”

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