Several years ago, a young woman who was following developments concerning workplace bullying shared a personal story with me.
She once held a job as an administrative assistant, and her boss had been sexually harassing her. She described how his conduct was both verbal and physical, and in my view it likely constituted a hostile work environment in violation of employment discrimination laws. In addition, her boss was known for having harassed other young female employees.
She reported the harassment to the human resources director, who promptly told her there was nothing that could be done about her boss’s wrongful behavior. Instead, she was offered a lower paying position in a different department. Because she was relying on her employer’s tuition subsidy benefit for employees completing degree programs, she reluctantly accepted this less-than-ideal “resolution.”
When we contemplate cover-ups and corruption in organizations, we typically envision high-profile corporate and political scandals involving lots of money and/or power.
But quiet, more modest cover-ups, such as this one committed by a complicit HR director who protected a harassing boss and the organization from being held accountable, occur with much greater frequency. In these instances, those who opt not to file lawsuits in response to illegal behavior — often for understandable reasons — are left to cope as best they can.
A true test of institutional integrity is how an employer responds to complaints from workers near the bottom of the organizational chart who make credible reports of unlawful conduct. It is easy to bury these complaints — especially, for example, when the aggrieved party is a young woman who does not wish to make waves.
These ground-level corruptions, however, are indicative of an employer that lacks a commitment to ethical behavior. Is it an exaggeration to suggest that such an organization has the core potential to become the Enron of tomorrow?