Two years ago, sexual misconduct allegations against (in)famous movie producer Harvey Weinstein were followed in quick succession by similar accusations against other high-profile men alleging acts ranging from lewd texting to forcible rape. Lurid stories of sexual harassment (or worse) in the workplace were broadcast over social media and filled the news.
In short order, numerous states and cities—including New York State and New York City, for example—implemented mandatory sexual harassment policies and training for all employers, largely due to the strength of the #MeToo movement. A recent case reported in a New York tabloid, however, makes it look like not everyone got the message.
Recently, the New York Post reported on a lawsuit in which Wegman Partners—an executive recruitment firm—failed to appropriately discipline an executive who allegedly committed sexual harassment in a flagrant manner.
Managing Director Veronica Mcllraith alleged Scott Legg—executive chairman of Wegman Partners—groped her, aggressively grabbed at her breasts, tried to open her sweater, offered to “suck on [her] boobies,” humped her office door, became violent when his advances were rebuffed, posted a sign outside his office saying “suck my b_lls,” and much more. If that wasn’t bad enough, she claimed she was forced out of her elite position in the firm’s Manhattan office after reporting his harassment.
Well, this went as expected. In addition to paying a $155,000 penalty to the New York City Human Rights Commission, Wegman Partners will have to provide new sexual harassment training to its employees, update its HR policies, and hire either outside counsel or a private HR consultant to handle harassment complaints.
Additionally, the firm reached a private settlement with Mcllraith for an amount assumed to be sizeable. Based on what allegedly occurred, some of Legg’s reported misconduct could possibly have violated the penal code, subjecting him to arrest and trial.
Why Should You Care?
As if doing the right thing isn’t enough of a reason to care, a toxic work environment in one department quickly permeates through the entire organization, affecting productivity, morale, retention, and recruiting.
Also, supervisors and HR professionals who fail to identify, halt, and remediate harassment may face personal liability for their actions or inactions under both the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), for example.
Under the NYCHRL, they may face punitive damages (which they may have to pay personally out of pocket), even if their derelictions weren’t intentional. Recently, the statute of limitations to file a complaint under the NYSHRL was extended from 1 year to 3 years.
Without more facts, it’s difficult to understand what Wegman Partners knew (or when it knew) or how it handled this case. Putting aside the serious allegations of physical assault, the crude hand drawings of private body parts that were alleged to have been posted in plain view alone would have raised eyebrows in most workplaces and triggered an investigation. Moreover, taking an adverse action against a sexual harassment complaint looks like classic retaliation and is usually never a smart play.
Although the reported case may be an outlier, there are many unfortunate stories about the failure of companies and public agencies to investigate allegations against an executive or top performer. Consistent with federal, state, and local laws, train all employees on your company’s sexual harassment policy, investigate all allegations—regardless of who is accused—and take prompt remedial action when an allegation is substantiated.
No one is above the law. Today’s top performer may turn out to be tomorrow’s tabloid story. If a high-level executive is accused (i.e., the executive chairman in the above example), consider retaining an outside consultant or law firm to handle the investigation so your process will be defensible and without reproach if challenged later.
Stay off the front page. Consult with qualified employment counsel if you need assistance with policies, training, investigations, discipline, or other corrective action related to a sexual harassment complaint.