Sexual harassment firestorm puts US workplaces in flux

New York (AFP) –


The Christmas party at the Advertising Specialty Institute is the chance to eat, drink and be merry after a year of hard work, relaxing with colleagues in the festively decorated cafeteria at the family firm near Philadelphia.

So far, so normal. Except that plenty of other companies have axed the annual tradition, determined to avoid untoward behavior as the United States closes out 2017 reeling from a firestorm of sexual harassment and abuse scandals.

The tsunami of allegations, which have ended the careers of a litany of powerful men from Hollywood, to politics to journalism, have left staff from the top down wondering if a hug here, or a remark there could be misinterpreted.

"You usually hug for the holidays -- that's the norm. It's a very close knit company," says trade show manager Tricia Walter, 45, who has worked at ASI, which produces promotional products, for 10 years.

"They may not feel so comfortable this time because maybe I'll take it the wrong way and it could cause trouble for them, which is kind of a shame."

Overall, Walter welcomes the accusations for giving the "power or the voice" to those who may have previously felt hesitant or fearful, though she also wonders "if there are a few shady or vindictive women... jumping on the bandwagon."

"I hope people have a great time," says colleague Dave Vagnoni who heads up ASI's specialist magazine. "I don't want workplaces to become vanilla, you should still be able to joke with people of the opposite gender."

Outwardly, at least, ASI appears exemplary when it comes to harassment. Women of different ages, speaking to AFP during the Christmas festivities, say they feel totally safe compared to other companies where they may have worked previously.

- 'Complicated time' -

CEO Timothy Andrews, 55, sacked a manager for inappropriate conduct in 2016 and recently emphasized a zero-tolerance policy, inviting anyone to report any grievances straight away, promising a prompt investigation.

"I think it is going to be a complicated time until we all sort through our own feelings about what's appropriate and what's not appropriate," he told AFP.

"That uncomfortable time is ok if it means that in a generation, women are treated appropriately in the workforce."

The #MeToo campaign that saw hundreds of thousands of women take to social media to complain about decades of sexual harassment was one of the defining cultural moments of 2017 in Western Europe and the United States.

The floodgates were opened in early October when The New York Times and New Yorker published explosives allegations against now fallen Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Since then, barely a day has gone by in the United States without another prominent man being accused and rapidly fired from their job. Among them is double Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. Fellow double Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman also faces mounting allegations, dating back decades and including women as young as 16.

Star television anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were sent packing. Chefs such as Mario Batali have taken a leave of absence, fashion photographers such as Terry Richardson have been ostracized and politicians such as Al Franken have stepped aside.

The avalanche of revelations has exposed a culture of complicity that allowed powerful men to operate with impunity, often paying out millions of dollars in non-disclosure agreements that bought accusers' silence.

Few allegations of sexual abuse or rape can be prosecuted because most happened too long ago to be brought before a court of law.

- Standard bearers -

Time magazine named "the silence breakers" its Person of the Year for triggering the national reckoning by revealing the pervasiveness of harassment, assault and abuse in US life. Dictionary Merriam Webster said "feminism" was its word of 2017.

But few see the scourge as over, personified by the US president himself -- elected despite boasting of being able to grab women. "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything," Donald Trump boasted on tape as a reality TV star in 2005.

The emergence of the "Access Hollywood" tape flung his presidential campaign into crisis in October 2016. Several women came forward to accuse him of harassment, but a month later he defeated Hillary Clinton regardless.

In the wake of #MeToo, some of those accusers are now demanding a Congressional investigation. Trump has dismissed their accusations as "fabricated stories."

Like others, freelance movie casting director Ellen Chenoweth fears a backlash that could get out of hand or be exploited by people nursing a grudge.

"I would not want it to spin out of control into something like 'that guy looks at me wrong.' It's also about how you raise you kids, what you teach boys and how you need to respect girls," she said.

"I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash," Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in early December. "'This is why you shouldn't hire women.' Actually, this is why you should."

ASI is convinced that the workplace must set an example.

"We have to be the standard bearers because we are the place where most people are spending most of their time," Andrews said. "We have to be setting the standard. If not where else are the standards going to be set?"