Why So Few People Report Abuse

When asked about the sexual harassment controversy at Fox News, one of the frequent refrains the company made was that no one had ever made a complaint. Perhaps the story by Chad Bray in today’s New York Times might shed some light on why people are so reluctant to come forward. The CEO of Barclays, James E. Staley, is under investigation for trying to learn the identity of a whistleblower.

The bank had been reeling from employee misconduct and determined to restructure and resolve litigation. Staley’s predecessor, Antony Jenkins, had done a lot to reshape the corporate culture but was driven out by the directors who no longer believed he could improve returns to shareholders. Instead they brought in Staley. Now it’s been revealed that Staley tried to ascertain the identity of the anonymous whistleblower whose letters seemed to implicate Staley in some sort of cover up. When the bank discovered Staley’s actions, which included seeking the assistance of a U.S. law enforcement team, no action was taken but Staley apologized. Today it was announced that Staley would be formally reprimanded and that he would be subjected to a “very significant compensation adjustment.”

No wonder no one wants to risk their career and safety to report misconduct. Staley received little more than a slap on the wrist and some short-term embarrassment. Whistleblowers on the other hand are often subjected to ongoing harassment and stalled, or even destroyed, careers.

In her excellent column, “The Upshot,” Claire Cain Miller makes the same point when she discusses why women just don’t report sexual harassment:

“Many victims, who are most often women, fear they will face disbelief, inaction, blame or societal and professional retaliation. That could be hostility from supervisors, a bad reference to future employers or the loss of job opportunities. Their fears are grounded in reality, researchers have concluded. In one study of public-sector employees, two-thirds of workers who had complained about mistreatment described some form of retaliation in a follow-up survey.”

If you feared a witch hunt and retaliation, would you report your supervisor? How about if his supervisor is known as an even worse offender? Miller’s research showed that official harassment policies often wind up hurting women because they’re used to prove to the courts that they did what they could, rather than protect female employees.

So what can be done? Perhaps the host of the HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has the right idea. His team created an edgy public service announcement to help a certain resident of Pennsylvania Avenue understand why it’s not a good idea to endorse the behavior of Bill O’Reilly. They tried to buy advertising airtime during The O’Reilly Factor, but oddly enough there were no takers in spite of a lack of advertising. Like bullies everywhere, they’re good at dishing out abuse, but not so strong when it comes to handling the resulting ridicule.

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