With fresh sexual harassment allegations arriving almost daily against powerful figures in one industry after another -- finance, entertainment, technology, restaurants -- one might assume the issue is on the tip of every board member's tongue and at the top of every company's agenda.
But a new survey of more than 400 directors or venture capitalists finds many aren't even talking about recent news stories about sexual harassment -- or doing much yet in response to them. Some employment lawyers also say they've seen few new concerns raised about a topic that has boiled over on social media, in the news and in the national conversation.
The survey was conducted by The Boardlist, which manages a directory of female board members, and the data analytics firm Qualtrics. Roughly three-quarters of the directors who responded said they had not discussed recent accusations of sexism or sexually inappropriate behavior involving the tech industry at the board level. Almost 90 percent had not implemented a plan of action in response to recent stories in the media, and just 19 percent said they had discussed the risks of a workplace environment that encourages drinking.
The survey, released Tuesday, was conducted in August following a series of harassment allegations against leaders in Silicon Valley and media titans at Fox News -- but before the recent claims emerged against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Though relatively small in scope and inclusive of directors who are also part of The Boardlist's membership -- the majority of respondents (79 percent) were women and not all directors answered all questions -- it offers a snapshot of how people feel about raising the controversial issue in the boardroom.
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, who founded The Boardlist and sits on several boards, said she wasn't surprised to see many directors weren't yet doing much in response. "Doing a risk audit around culture is not the norm. It's only when a crisis comes up that these things show up," she said in an interview. "But what did surprise me is the lack of conversation coming up in light of the national discourse."
The survey found that the most common reason board members said they had not yet addressed sexual harassment at the board level was because they felt it was not a problem. Yet Cassidy said it's possible the majority-female sample could play a role in how directors responded, as some reported being uncomfortable raising the issue. "If you're the only woman in the boardroom, you may be afraid of being typecast for bringing up these issues," she said.
When Cassidy looked at only those responses from board members in the venture capital industry, which has been roiled by recent harassment allegations, the results were nearly flipped. More than 80 percent of those directors had discussed the accusations and half were making changes as a result. "When VCs say it's happening more in our board room, that's directly correlated" to the reputation crisis the industry has faced in recent months, Cassidy said.
Some employment lawyers say they also aren't hearing much in the way of anxious clients or newfound concerns in light of the recent flood of accusations, outside of certain industries.
Valerie Hoffman, a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, said she isn't hearing an uptick in questions. "Most employer groups with whom I work feel pretty well positioned with their harassment prevention policies," she said.
She's heard some requests for follow-up about how to "reinforce a 'speak-up' culture" and how they should respond to the #MeToo social media campaign, but concerns have come more from smaller employers and from companies in the entertainment or financial fields.
Jennifer Sandberg, a partner with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta who provides sexual harassment training, also says she hasn't seen a big bump in questions from clients since the issue exploded in the news. While her firm handles clients of all sizes, many are midsize companies with 1,000 to 10,000 employees.
"I think a lot of that size employer reads the newspaper and says 'well, that’s Hollywood. That’s Silicon Valley. That’s the finance world,' " she said. "They think 'my workplace is better than that' or 'we’ve never had those types of problems.' "
But while some companies may engage in willful blindness and ignore problems, Sandberg said, many are actually blind to the problem because of how often sexual harassment goes unreported.
"The majority of employers don't think they have a problem because they're not hearing from people that there's a problem," she said. "I do think this heightened awareness of sexual harassment is slowly going to generate more complaints."
Some human resources experts, meanwhile, are witnessing a shift. Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia-based employment lawyer, said he's noticed some anxious comments in confidential calls and on message boards fretting about whether there's "a Weinstein in our workplace and we don't know about it." He's also gotten requests to review sexual harassment policies and heard about companies adding third-party whistleblowing firms to help employees report bad behavior.
What he finds encouraging, he says, is that unlike when sexual harassment dominated the headlines in the early 1990s amid the Anita Hill testimony, the question companies are asking today is changing: "What I hear different now is people are not just saying 'what do we need to do?' It's 'what else can we do?' That's a very different question."