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Why employers ignore abuse complaints

Harvey Weinstein
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Harvey Weinstein

"We all knew about it! We. All. Knew," Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of London's Royal Court Theatre, said of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the film and theater industries.

People felt that, as long as it was not happening in their rehearsal rooms or their theaters, they weren't responsible, she told The Guardian. "I just can't believe that we've all colluded," she said.

Allegations of sexual abuse by top executives are rarely a surprise to those who work for or with them. So why does it take a newspaper investigation or a small number of brave individuals to uncover what so many on the inside already knew?

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First, complaining is like leaping off a cliff on your first sky dive. Once done, there is no going back. And the risks of it going wrong are huge. Those who complain are usually, at best, ignored. Otherwise, they are often crushed by the superior force of the organization's lawyers and drummed out of the industry.

In many years of talking to whistleblowers and complainants about corporate abuse, I have not met any who emerged undamaged. The problem with my skydiving analogy is that skydivers have a far higher chance of landing unscathed.

And sexual abuse is only one aspect of organizational harassment. There are other ways managers misuse their power, such as systematic bullying and victimization.

When people do speak up, organizations usually fail to respond or hit back at the complainants, alleging, for example, that their performance has been poor.

An allegation of abuse or harassment threatens not just the managers concerned but also the way the organization sees itself. All enterprises have a purpose, an ethos, what we have come to call a corporate culture. Suggesting that mission is flawed threatens not only the organization's leaders, but its employees too.

We devote most of our waking hours to working for our organizations. If someone suggests that everything we are doing is built on managers' nefarious behavior, what does it say about us that we are putting up with it? Those who speak out often find that their fellow workers prefer not to know.

When those who complain get nowhere, "a subtle complicity evolves among the other employees," an article in the Academy of Management Executive journal said. That complicity compounds the other employees' shame at not speaking out, and makes it less likely that they will do so in future.

Analyzing "deaf ear" syndrome, the article, by a group of academics at the University of North Carolina, compares companies that close ranks against complainants to narcissists "who need to maintain a positive self-image and engage in 'ego-defensive' behavior to preserve their self-esteem".

If the misbehavior does come out, the article says, the damage to the organization is often extensive — in compensation payments, the departure of senior employees and reputational damage.

Does the recent flood of allegations mean people will be more willing to speak up?

Well, that Academy of Management article appeared in 1998, nearly 20 years ago. It followed a string of sexual abuse scandals at Mitsubishi, the U.S. Army and the U.S. branch of Astra, the pharmaceuticals company that is now part of AstraZeneca. In the biggest settlement at that time, "Mitsubishi agreed to pay $34 million to several hundred women who had alleged unheeded claims of sexual harassment over a period of years", the article said.

Yet here we are again, with serious allegations against, among others, Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Company, and Kevin Spacey, former artistic director of London's Old Vic theater.

Will things change? Will those who suffer abuse be readier to speak up, and are managers more likely to believe them and take action? One can hope so. But organizations' drive to protect themselves and their own self-image will not go away.

Real change would require independent third parties that people can report to, and impartial hearings. With trade union membership falling and access to legal representation increasingly out of reach of ordinary people, complaining remains as daunting a first step as ever.

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This article originally appeared on the Financial Times.