The awful necessity of the “business case” against workplace harassment and abuse

The ongoing and very public torrent of stories and accusations of sexual harassment and abuse directed at Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has prompted an endless stream of commentaries about sexual harassment in the workplace. For example, the Economist magazine weighed in on the bottom-line business impacts of unchecked sexual harassment:

The victims often suffer depression, anger and humiliation. Firms where harassment happens are eventually harmed, too. Mr Weinstein’s studio may be sued…. The company could even be destroyed by the scandal. Even if one leaves aside all moral arguments—which one should not—failing to deal with harassment is usually bad for business. Firms that tolerate it will lose female talent to rivals that do not, and the market will punish them. The costs of decency are trivial; the rewards to shareholders are large.

This is yet another version of the so-called “business case” against work abuse, in this instance sexual harassment. For those of us who have been addressing workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors, this rap sounds familiar. We are continually urged to make the business case against psychological abuse at work, including articulating its cost impacts and, whenever possible, assigning estimated monetary figures.

I understand that whenever abusive behaviors are prevalent in the workplace, it makes sense to point out the costs to the organization. However, I do so with an underlying slow burn. It means that it’s not enough to show that bullying, mobbing, and harassment can wreak havoc on an individual’s health, livelihood, and overall well being. It means that all too many CEOs, senior executives, and managers won’t take work abuse seriously until they understand the monetary costs to their organizations. 

I’m a pragmatist. If it takes the “business case” against work abuse to get organizational leaders to care, I say let’s make it. But this sure doesn’t say much about the morals, ethics, and empathy of the executives who look the other way unless it hits them in their wallets and profit-and-loss statements. Human suffering alone is not enough for them; money, not decency, is what motivates them to act.

11 responses

  1. Look to the wrongful termination lawsuits nurses have endured. Sometimes the hospital will appeal rulings against them which may drag out eight years or more. The hospital know full well the human suffering an alone individual nurse endures with meager resources against their deep pockets. Not a thought about how unethical, unjust or disrespectful their act may be. I would love to see a sample case dissected to illustrate all the forms of workplace abuse that are exercised by an employer and its mob. It would cause a lot of questions. Particularly, why have abusers not been held accountable by their licensing boards?

  2. Thanks David for you article and getting the message out there.
    I can surely relate. I am so glad this growing epidemic is finally coming out into the open. Thanks again.

  3. Unfortunately it’s the case with many health/public health issues (which harassment/abuse are a part of). Look at healthcare, same thing. It’s not because it’s right that people have primary care and prevention services…it’s because it is cheaper in the long run.

  4. Bob Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule” sets out an excellent business case for not hiring, or for getting rid of, jerks. He frames the case in the cost of lost business, turnover, reduced productivity, increased sick days, and so on. He’s mostly talking about people who are obnoxious, but his reasoning could very easily be applied to people who are abusive or who are harassers.

  5. You are so right, David, I end up making the $$$case in most cases with employers. With SSA and rampant bullying problems even with 9 suicides caused by it they responded to the $$$ case and not the human damage. I believe that ethics and morals are rare these days.

  6. sociopaths rise to the top of the organization, by charm and cutthroat behavior (not competence). from there, they create policy… to protect themselves while they cheat, steal, rob the company blind…. which results in an entire culture of mobbing, sexual assault, bullying, etc.

  7. How does one create an organization with true caring of human beings, when so many employees seem only interested in protecting their own best interests? People are frightened and silenced, and if one speaks out of mobbing or bullying things often only get worse through retaliation and further alienation. How does an organization create a caring and moralistically strong culture? Is this idealism too much to expect from a group of adults who may spend more time together than with their own families?

  8. Corporate leaders too often don’t believe that their most valuable asset is their employees. If they did, human resource management practices would routinely be audited as part of the enterprise risk management system. Human capital is expended gratuitously while financial capital is guarded and monitored. All about values. ethics, and priorities.

    It’s fortunate indeed that there is a business case that prescribes behaviour that could reasonably be framed as compassionate, moral, human-rights respecting, civilized, and decent. Frankly, I’m not sure I care about what motivates those with power to do right things, so long as they do them.

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