The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The price of sexual harassment should be ruin

John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, speaks during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

There are a lot of ways to measure the costs of sexual harassment. Add up the lost wages, missed professional opportunities and personal damage done to the people who are victimized on the job. Tally the costs of internal investigations and the severance packages paid out to big names who are fired for misconduct. Try to estimate the lost productivity and potential that are byproducts of a workplace where certain stars are so big and powerful that their worst behavior has to be tolerated or mitigated.

But for all the damage assessed in the two months since reporting by the New Yorker and the New York Times kicked off a wrenching national confrontation with a diseased culture of sexual entitlement and sexual violence, it doesn’t seem like we’ve found the cost that would be painful enough to force companies and cultures to change.

This moment has given us certain indicators of what a breaking point might look like. According to a Nov. 20 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Fox News has “to date” paid $55 million “to settle claims for sexual harassment and racial discrimination.”  That figure doesn’t include the $32 million that former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly paid privately to settle a harassment complaint by a single woman, former legal analyst Lis Wiehl, just before the network reupped his contract. Nor does it account for the $25 million in severance pay that O’Reilly took with him when he departed.

Those figures — plus a lawsuit from a shareholder in 21st Century Fox, the city of Monroe Employees’ Retirement System — were apparently high enough to get Fox News to establish a council intended to “ensure a proper workplace environment for all guests and employees” through changes to the human resources, reporting and recruitment systems. Whether the number is enough to radically revamp the culture at the network is a question that can only be answered in time, especially since revenue at Fox News, CNN and MSNBC was up a combined 19.5 percent in 2016. Maybe losing $55 million is undesirable, but still affordable.

Follow Alyssa Rosenberg's opinionsFollow

On a more personal level, the Weinstein Company apparently tried to establish that dollar figure of no return for an individual. Harvey Weinstein’s 2015 contract with his company stipulated that he had to repay any settlements or judgments that resulted in violations of the company’s code of conduct — and that he would owe his colleagues escalating fines of up to $1 million per incident for each additional offense.

It’s not clear whether Weinstein signed that contract before or after he is alleged to have groped Ambra Battilana Gutierrez in 2015. Given the number of women who have come forward with stories of harassment and assault at Weinstein’s hands, it’s difficult to presume that we know every story, and thus are in a position to evaluate whether the Weinstein Company’s attempts at containment worked.

And even if they did, was forcing Weinstein to pony up really more moral that firing him, or reporting him to the police? What price should the Weinstein Company have to pay for trying to limit the damage Weinstein did to its bottom line, even as it preserved the very public image that got him access to his victims?

For that matter, what should the consequences be for Disney executives who may have known about the pattern of behavior that recently led Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter to take a leave of absence? Is it really enough to send a minder to parties to keep an eye on a man who was apparently “observed passionately kissing a female subordinate at a 2010 Miramax party,” and “was inappropriate with the fairies” — the young women hired to play Disney fairies?

Maybe the answer is that men like these just make too much money and bring in too much for their companies. “Cars 2,” the most recent feature that Lasseter directed for Pixar, made more than $562 million in theaters around the world. One analysis suggests that Harvey Weinstein is the most-thanked person in Oscar speeches given between 1966 and 2016 after Stephen Spielberg and tied with God. In 2015, before an advertiser boycott and O’Reilly’s firing, “The O’Reilly Factor” attracted $126 million in advertising revenue.

Those numbers mean that for all the scathing revelations we’ve heard over the past two months, things actually need to get much worse before they get better. The cost of sexually harassing someone, or of tolerating sexual harassment, needs to be not merely large, but disastrous. An organization like the Weinstein Company needs to face a serious chance of ruin as a consequence of taking merely milquetoast action. Until sexual misconduct is not just a risk for companies to mitigate but a serious threat to their continued existence, some men will always be dangerously valuable.