The vast majority of discrimination and sexual harassment complaints are settled or otherwise disposed of before they even come close to going to trial. The typical settlement involves monetary compensation to the complainant, without any admission of wrongdoing by the employer or alleged wrongdoer(s), and with all parties obliged to keep the matter confidential.
This subject has entered the news cycle because of allegations that GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain had sexually harassed two female employees in the 1990s. Both women accepted settlements and left the organization.
Pursuant to the Cain story, I was asked by CNN’s Emanuella Grinberg to comment about confidential settlements in sexual harassment cases, and I expressed my concerns about the downsides of this common practice (full article here):
But there are greater collateral effects of concealing real instances of harassment, said David Yamada, Suffolk University law professor and director of the New Workplace Institute in Boston.
“Employers become complicit in shielding themselves and the individual harassers — many of whom are management level or supervisors — from genuine accountability,” he said. “If the confidential settlement does not result in any concrete discipline or discharge of the harasser, there’s a decent chance it will happen again to another employee.”
Weighing costs and benefits
Don’t get me wrong: Settling a valid claim of discrimination or harassment often is better for employee and employer alike. I also have no desire to subject targets of sexual harassment or any other kind of workplace mistreatment to long, stressful, drawn-out legal proceedings. And I know that some employers may settle claims they do not believe are meritorious largely because it will cost too much to lodge a defense.
However, bad employers often have a long track record of settling legitimate claims very quietly. In these organizations, for example, if a serial harasser has enough power or influence, he may well be able to keep his position despite his misconduct. This means, of course, that the idea of accountability is tossed aside, and that more employees are likely to be mistreated in the future.
Related post: Quiet cover-ups