Career Advice Sep 07 2011

Harassment: Is it You or the Company?

By kelly eggers

Harassment on the job tends to occur in certain types of workplace cultures rather than to certain types of people, research shows. Most job hunters don't take this into account and think they are immune regardless of an organization's reputation. That could be a mistake.

In FINS' informal Sign or Decline forum, 64% of 662 respondents said they'd accept their dream job if their predecessor had filed suit against the company for harassment.

A 2009 study from Ohio State University found that workplaces where there is job insecurity, weak authority figures and women occupying jobs that are typically held by men tend to have higher instances and complaints of both general and sexual harassment. This probably won't change when you join the company.

"If you're a woman going to work in a predominantly male environment, it's not a good sign that the person who directly held the role you're entering had harassment issues," said Allegra Fishel, an employment discrimination attorney with New York-based firm Outten & Golden LLP. Women filling such roles should consider whether the issue was an individual situation, or something pervasive throughout the company, she said.

"Having a job is important in this economy, but harassment can be something that's very destructive," said Fishel. "Some people think they are confident enough or think they can handle it if it happened to them, or they feel desperate for a job and are willing to put up with it."

The only people who may be immune are those at the top of the corporate food chain. People are more likely to harass and intimidate people below them, said Lynette Lewis, a New York City-based career consultant and author of Climbing the Ladder in Stilettos. In a managerial role, you may be above the influence of a problem-causing staff member, she said. If the harassment claim was against the chief executive, that may be a different story.

The nature of the complaint is also important in evaluating a prospective work environment. The word "lawsuit" is often misappropriated, said Fishel. "It could be that a lawyer sent a letter, or someone filed a complaint with an agency, or that an actual lawsuit was filed," she said. "If it's really a lawsuit, I'd give it a lot of pause."

A company may not have a toxic work environment just because it's facing a lawsuit. "There are many vindictive former employees, who may just file a suit against their company because they're bitter about being laid off," Lewis said.

Either way, before accepting a job where there's a history of harassment complaints, here are a few questions to consider asking:

Has there been turnover at the company or in the department?

In departments or organizations where there have been harassment claims, it's important to see if the individuals who were in place at the time are still there. "The individuals who are in an office create the culture," Lewis said. "Change is good for disbanding these kinds of environments."

If things at the company have changed significantly, it might be a better environment.

What's the average tenure for people who take the position?

Tenure can be a key indicator of broader organizational issues and it's especially important when considering the potential for harassment. "A lot of turnover indicates cultural problems," Lewis said. There may have been only one legal complaint, but if everyone who's held the job in the last five years has left quickly, that's a red flag.

Does the company have a teamwork approach?

The Ohio State researchers found that workplaces that place an emphasis on teamwork experienced reduced levels of sexual harassment. The researchers attribute this to heightened senses of transparency and accountability, which discourage blatant, aggressive incidences of harassment.

What's the general, man-on-the-street reputation of the company?

This is part of doing your due diligence as a job seeker. "Especially for larger companies, there are likely articles written over the years about what the company's culture is like," Lewis said. She also suggests leveraging resources like LinkedIn and to gather opinions about what working at the company is like.

What kind of worker am I?

Lewis said that this question is critical. "Are you a person who goes into a job to quickly assimilate within the existing company culture, or are you a change-agent who tries to exceed limits and instigate change?" Be honest with yourself: "Don't put yourself in a position where you're going against your personality. You need to avoid putting yourself in the line of fire."

What Would You Do?

Answer the question and see how you match up with the rest of the FINS community.

You've just been offered your dream job, but... your predecessor has filed suit against the company for harassment.


Write to Kelly Eggers

Sign or Decline is a series of questions on that ask what you would do for your dream job. Since its launch late last year, over 100,000 answers have been received and compiled in our database. Participate in Sign or Decline here.

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