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After Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood assistants urged to break culture of silence

Harvey Weinstein's assistants are part of his story. (Paul Buck/European Pressphoto Agency-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

There is no rule book for Hollywood assistants. They make reservations, plan birthday parties, schedule surgeries — tasks vary by employer. But practically everyone signs a confidentiality agreement.

Now industry leaders are urging these gatekeepers to shatter the culture of silence and come forward if they endure or witness sexual harassment, even if they're bound by a nondisclosure agreement.

The calls for increased transparency follow reports by the New York Times and New Yorker alleging years of harassment and sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein. The stories have rocked the entertainment business and raised questions about how much the movie producer's assistants knew about the abuse.

Violence. Threats. Begging. Harvey Weinstein's 30-year pattern of abuse in Hollywood.

Since the Weinstein stories surfaced, ICM Partners, one of the world’s largest talent agencies, and other firms have told staffers to speak up if a boss harasses them or others. A veteran assistant is counseling newcomers on how to handle sexual harassment. New York state lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing for legislation that would outlaw any contract that would have the effect of concealing claims of harassment or discrimination.

The days of executives prizing discretion over safety need to be over, said Rachel Zaslansky Sheer, co-founder of the Grapevine Agency, a staffing firm to the stars.

“If anything feels off, don’t do it,” Sheer said she tells job candidates. “Say something. It’s not worth it. Nothing is worth it.”

ICM Partners, one of Hollywood's big four agencies, recently called an all-staff meeting, where Chris Silbermann, the firm's managing partner,  denounced Weinstein’s behavior and told workers to report any form of abuse they encounter on the job to human resources or the firm's legal team. Employees in New York and London watched the event on video.

“He assured the staff that every partner’s door is open to discuss this matter or any other if people needed to talk,” said ICM spokesman Brad Turell.

Assistants, however, don’t often feel empowered to ask questions or say no, even if they suspect their employer could be hurting others. Blind loyalty, some say, is seen as an asset.

“You are not in a position where you have any remote sort of leverage, and you are extremely replaceable,” said the assistant of a popular show-runner in Los Angeles, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his nondisclosure agreement and fear of retaliation. “There are very few things that are worth speaking up about because when and if you decide to do that, it’s over.”

However, Debra Katz, a civil rights and employment lawyer in Washington, said the nondisclosure agreements that are customary in the industry cannot block someone from filing a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She added that assistants alleged to have enabled sexual harassment or abuse could face legal exposure.

“This whole notion of an assistant delivering someone to a hotel room and clearly knowing what it was about — there’s a good argument that the individual aided and abetted the sexual assault,” Katz said. “If they were taking women to Weinstein under what they knew were false pretenses, and if they understood that there were likely unwanted sexual advances, that’s aiding and abetting.”

Some lawmakers are pushing to give workers more legal protection to raise concerns.

Two New York state senators introduced a bill last year that would throw out any contract that prohibits workers from reporting misconduct. (The move came after former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson accused Roger Ailes of sexual harassment.)

“The Weinstein matter shows that when the boss commits sexual harassment, it’s not just overlooked but enabled,” said state senator Brad Hoylman, one of the measure’s co-sponsors.

About 632,000 executive assistants work in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They’re concentrated in New York and California, with a typical annual salary of about $58,000.

Fewer than 4 percent of assistants are employed by an artist, entertainer or athlete, government data show, but they play an outsize role in popular culture. Movies depict them jumping from chore to chore, keeping their boss’s life in order, hoping to build a career in a competitive field.

Sheer, the staffing executive in Los Angeles, said she tells other executives informally to avoid problem bosses. If she hears fearful whispers about an A-list client, “I’ll call my friends who own other agencies and say, ‘Hey, guys — we didn’t have a great experience with this person,” Sheer said.

The depressing truth about sexual harassment in America

Bonnie Low-Kramen, co-founder of New York Celebrity Assistants, a networking organization, spoke to a crowd of aspiring assistants in Dallas on Monday about how to handle sexual harassers.

The topic, she said, exploded into her conversations after the  Weinstein story broke.

“What is it we are willing to tolerate and not tolerate?” she said she asks young people who want a foot in Hollywood's door.

Low-Kramen, who worked as actress Olympia Dukakis’s assistant for 25 years, advises assistants to tell their bosses or someone they trust when something makes them uncomfortable.

“Nine times out of ten, they’re not going to lose their jobs,” she said, adding that you don’t want a predator on your résumé, anyway. “We have to shine a light, or we’ll never break these patterns.”

A number of Weinstein's accusers have raised uncomfortable questions about the role played by his assistants. In describing an alleged assault that took place in Cannes in 1997, model Zoe Brock said Weinstein's assistant had said a group of friends would be meeting in the movie producer's hotel room.

“I had been played by not just one predator, but all of his accomplices,” she said on Australia’s 60 Minutes.

The assistant later apologized, Brock wrote in a Medium post. “‘I’m so sorry,’  he said,” according to Brock’s account. “‘I want you to know that of all the girls he does this to you are the one I really felt bad about.’”

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