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Hyper-aware of Harassment: Companies Taking Steps to Head off Misconduct

Fidelity Investments on Congress Street in Boston Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki

10/23/2017
Boston Herald
By Donna Goodison

Headline-grabbing allegations of sexual harassment are making companies hyper-vigilant about their corporate cultures and policies, and claims filed by employees, experts say.

Brian Hogan, president of Boston-based Fidelity Investments’ equity division, held a special employee meeting last Monday to reiterate the mutual fund firm’s “zero-tolerance” policy for inappropriate workplace conduct, including sexual harassment, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, citing a person familiar with the matter. Fidelity also has hired a consulting firm to review employee behavior and its processes to handle the sensitive situations, it said.

The moves come after a former Fidelity portfolio manager left the company this month amid allegations of inappropriate sexual comments. And last month, another Fidelity portfolio manager was dismissed amid allegations that he sexually harassed a junior female employee, the newspaper reported.

“No company wants to be the next Fox News or Harvey Weinstein,” said David Sherwyn, a Cornell University professor of hospitality human resources and law. “So if you’ve got some allegations, if you’ve got some concerns, the companies are more hyper-aware of this than they were a month ago.”

Fidelity policies prohibit harassment in any form, according to spokesman Vincent Loporchio, who said Fidelity immediately investigates allegations brought to its attention and takes “prompt and appropriate action.”

“We simply will not and do not tolerate this type of behavior,” he said.

Fidelity encourages employees to raise concerns, including through an anonymous “Chairman’s Line,” Loporchio said.

But zero-tolerance policies aren’t always effective, according to Meg Bond, a psychology professor and director of the Center for Women and Work at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Research has shown that a zero-tolerance policy can backfire in the sense that if the punishment is going to be huge, you are (only) going to have people come forward when it is a major transgression, and when they’re ready for the perpetrator to be seriously punished, and when they feel that it is entirely safe to come forward,” Bond said, noting it’s rare to get that combination of conditions.

“You can’t have an effective zero-tolerance policy until you make it entirely safe for people to raise not just the most difficult issues, but even the most subtle cases,” said Bond, who sat on a recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force that studied workplace harassment. “Sometimes you just want it to stop, and zero tolerance often means that somebody’s job is on the block.”

The number of sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC annually has remained flat the last six years, evidence that current systems to address the problem aren’t working, said Harvard University sociology professor Frank Dobbin, who also was an EEOC task force member.

“A very, very small percentage of all cases of harassment ever make it through the complaint process,” he said.

Workplace sexual harassment often happens in very hierarchical companies, where men typically dominate the top positions, and women are in lower-level jobs, Dobbin said.

“If you look at work- places where 50 percent of the managers are women and 50 percent are men, a woman is much less likely to be harassed,” he said.

Harassment is also often overlooked in industries with star performers, such as high-tech and Hollywood, according to Dobbin. “People will go along with bad behavior as along as people are performing,” he said.