These days, no industry, no workplace, no pocket of American life seems to be immune from the long reach of sexual harassment. From Capitol Hill to Hollywood, higher education to hotel housekeeping, women -- and men -- are coming forward to tell their stories.
But certain industries seem to be popping up with particular frequency: Media. Venture capital and finance. Entertainment. And if there's one thing these industries and others have in common, it's an organizational culture that rewards stars and bestows power not just on the chief executive or president at the top of an official hierarchy, but to those who are star performers on screen, behind the scenes or when it comes to the bottom line.
"I believe industries that have a paradigm of absolute power brokering at the top may be more susceptible to these issues," said Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of The BoardList, which manages a directory of female board members. "My sense is that industries that have king-making environments can breed this kind of behavior."
Harassment certainly seems more common in industries that favor such king-makers, rainmakers or stars. Or those are the stories that draw the big headlines, at least. Women in other industries may feel unwilling -- or unable -- to come forward. But as companies wrestle with how to prevent more allegations, the potential downsides of a star-driven system, particularly as that mentality grows more common, shouldn't be forgotten.
In recent months, organizations have reckoned with this watershed moment of victims coming forward. They're sending thousands of employees to new or expanded harassment prevention training programs. They're adding implicit bias workshops, outside vendors for employees to report complaints, and board-level committees or councils to improve workplace civility and professionalism. Some are even banning open bars at the holiday party to help avoid further trouble.
But some believe employers should be paying attention to something more deeply rooted in their culture: The extent to which they have a star system in place that rewards some employees exponentially higher than others, setting up a power differential that can overlook or excuse bad behavior. There's a chance that companies that have extreme differentials between employees in incentive pay, that are highly focused on individuals rather than team-based work or that don't consider workers' behavior enough in performance evaluations could be more at risk.
"Those firms today that are so focused on the 'star' employee, where it’s all about productivity -- that’s an enabling environment," said Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management who has studied toxic workers. In systems where the focus is solely on performance metrics, "people can have less than favorable evaluations and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the numbers."
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission raised this issue in its task force report on sexual harassment last year, calling them "superstar harassers."
"Think of the high-earning trader at an investment bank, the law firm partner who brings in lucrative clients, or the renowned professor or surgeon," the report's authors wrote. Because superstars are privileged when it comes to income, accommodations and expectations, they wrote, "that privilege can lead to a self-view that they are above the rules, which can foster mistreatment."
Indeed, said Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of "The A--hole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People who Treat You Like Dirt," there are "hundreds" of studies detailing how power can change the way people treat others. "They're less focused on their needs, less good at stifling their own impulses and they see other people more as objects toward an end," he said.
Given those studies, Kellogg's Minor said, the link between the high compensation that stars receive and the way such power could change their behavior is concerning.
"If you feel like you're really elevated versus someone else, sometimes you feel like you're more justified in your actions," he said. And if pay is "really distorted," he said, "where a few are making massive amounts of money, that definitely could help further this problem of behavior, because they feel they're able to do that."
That link may seem most obvious in high-profile examples like "Today Show" host Matt Lauer, who made a reported $25 million annual salary, but the workplace overall has become more focused on performance-based pay. The increasing priority placed on winning the "war for talent" has resulted in companies paying a greater and greater slice of their payroll budget over the past 30 years -- from the top of the organization on down to the rank-and-file -- in the form of bonuses, with more focus than ever on "differentiating" the rewards paid to top and average performers.
"If I have a mind-set that stars are crucial for the success of the business, then I’m more likely to do two things," said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor who has written widely about power in organizations. "I’m more likely to put up with bad behavior, and I’m more likely to pay proportionately."
While tying pay to performance and rewarding high performers may be important, taking it too far could also be misguided. Minor's research has shown that it can actually be more costly for an employer to retain a toxic employee, even if they're a star worker, as the profits they provide don't offset the damage they do.
And Sutton points to another study on baseball teams which shows that the teams with a lower differential in pay between the team's stars and everyone else actually performed better than those that paid their best players much more. The star players performed well no matter what, and the less well-compensated teammates may have seen the differentiation as unjust.
To lessen the potential issues with a star-based system, Kellogg's Minor said it's important to make sure factors besides sales or productivity -- things like good corporate citizenship, collaboration skills and collegiality -- are part of performance reviews.
Others suggest accountability at the top is what must be enforced. Adam Grant, a professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who studies organizational behavior, said in an email that he believes the problem is less about an emphasis on stars and more about "giving too much leeway to people in power."
Sutton, meanwhile, said it's important for employers to find ways to de-emphasize status distinctions -- such as having executives in open offices near employees -- rather than increase them.
And if there are stars in the organization, make sure plenty of women are in positions of power, too, Sutton said: "I do believe that the more high-status powerful women these guys need to deal with, the more they will have empathy for women in general."