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After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Does The Workplace Need A Culture Shift?


Sen. Al Franken's decision to resign and the Dallas Theater Center's firing of Lee Trull are the latest moves in a seemingly nonstop stream of public figures embroiled in sexual harassment controversies. 

"The only thing that's new happening here is that people are getting fired for being harassers," SMU law professor Joanna Grossman says. "The harassment's not new."

Grossman specializes in sex discrimination and workplace equality. She says the law covers sexual harassment, but work culture often dictates whether justice is adequately served.

Interview Highlights: Joanna Grossman...

...On why some accused harassers get to leave on their own terms:

"Well, it depends a little bit on what [the companies] are trying to accomplish. [In] these very high-profile cases, what those employers are responding to is a little bit public opinion, public response, maybe advertisers, stockholders, so it depends on who your constituency and who you're trying to please with the action that you take." 

...On the language -- "irresponsible behavior" or "misconduct" -- that some companies use to announce firings:

"I think the risk of the language is that we're sort of losing sight of the spectrum [of harassment]. One of my real beefs with the way these scandals are playing out is the standard apology: 'If I knew then what I know now, I never would've done this.' What in fact they're referring to is accusations of rape, real sexual imposition, and it's completely untenable to suggest that 10 years ago he didn't understand that was wrong and now he understands it is.

"When we study people and how they perceive inappropriate sexual conduct, everyone is really good at identifying things on the severe end of the spectrum — men, women, people in all kinds of workplaces — a lot of the accusations fit in that category and the blurring then is that we think, 'Oh now you can't do anything at work' when in fact really what we're talking about is pretty severe conduct."

...On the people who abuse power in the workplace:  

"All you can do is change what you do about it. Institutions set culture and we do know from research on harassment that different employers, different institutions do have different levels of harassment and a lot of it comes from messaging at the top. What ties these scandals together is that the person doing the harassing was the single most important person in the place. In those cultures, of course harassment's going to proliferate if the person who's doing it is the person who has all of the power.

"But even when that's not the case, the people at the top set the tone and tones get set in a lot of different ways. It's not just having a policy. It's not just offering mandatory training. It's about a constant cultural message that says, 'We don't tolerate this. We want to promote talent, egalitarian processes.' I don't think you're going to change who's doing the harassing and who's being victimized. You might be able to change what's being done about it."  

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.