Speak No Evil? How Silence Cultivated the Penn State Sex Scandal

Jerry Sandusky Joe Paterno Penn StateFirst and foremost, after reading the Penn State Grand Jury report, my heart just weeps for the boys who lost their innocence at the hands of a perceived icon. I was once a blooming student athlete in my teens, in awe of university coaches, and staff. My classmates and I scrambled to attend youth sports camps at various universities in Pennsylvania; and our parents trusted these paragons of higher learning. As a volleyball stand out from western Pennsylvania, I loved both Pitt and Penn State, and fully understand how a young person can be mesmerized inappropriately by these lofty sports figures. My empathy extends to the families affected, and the lives forever changed.

As I reflect on the Penn State case, I see common theme in this sex scandal and my own work regarding diversity, harassment and workplace bullying. Misconduct and incivility all erode an organization; such behavior is often perpetrated by someone in power. The organizational culture implicitly or explicitly promotes the action; and in most cases, someone else knew about it. Somebody else ALWAYS knows about it.

Whether sexual misconduct between adults, molestation of children, harassment, or workplace bullying, a possible intervener is usually present; someone who walked in, was at a meeting, or intercepted a call. There is typically someone who can redirect the problem, report it and stop others from being abused, hurt, or harassed. The Grand Jury Report regarding the situation at Penn State outlines at least five other administrators and an entire department of janitorial staff who knew of these sexual assaults on children. The silence perpetrated by all involved allowed for this heinous behavior to continue for years. No one stopped the perpetrator; and in the midst of this silence, this perpetrator only went on to continuously damage the lives of several boys.

The organizational dynamics regarding staff silence in the face of incivility and mistreatments are evident in a recent EEOC case with Dunkin Donuts. The College View, NY Dunkin Donuts recently settled a sexual harassment law suit with the EEOC for $290,000. Over the course of two years, young ladies, some as young as 16, were subjected to the manager's lewd comments, harassment and inappropriate touching in the workplace. They had even reported the manager's behavior to human resources during the course of a year, but were rebuffed and ignored. Despite several attempts to receive organizational support, they only received relief from this harassment when they reported it to the police who later arrested the manager. As the EEOC noted, organizations and companies have a responsibility to protect its employees.

Penn State candlelight vigil sexual abuseIn another case involving sexual misconduct, Novarits was recently a defendant in a class action sex discrimination case when one of its rising sales women, Salame, was raped by the boss' best friend. At a company sponsored event, the alleged perpetrator propositioned Salame, advising her that he had taken Viagra and had "blue steel." Salame's boss knew about the problem, and knew about his friend's inappropriate behavior and reportedly "didn't flinch" when hearing such lewd remarks. At the next opportunity, the boss's friend raped Salame after a company golf outing. The sex discrimination case includes other testimony from female sales representatives who stated that they were expected to endure this unwanted sexual behavior because the doctors making these advances to the female sales staff were high prescribers and valuable to Novartis.

This sexual misconduct was among other gender discrimination issues which included unequal pay, pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment. As a result, Novartis was ordered to pay $250 million in punitive damages in regard to this class action case representing 5,600 women. Note, the back pay amounts are not included in punitive damages; meaning when it is all over, Novartis can be on the hook for over one BILLION dollars. And as testimony showed, administration and management knew all along about the discrimination and sexual offensive behavior. In some cases administration actually condoned the unwanted sexual advances from clients to their female staff. Instead of stopping the behavior, management offered strategies to women on how to play along with sexist behavior.

These aforementioned cases highlight the fact that other people typically know about assault. This past year, American Apparel was sued for a sex scandal involving an 18 year old girl who was allegedly subjected to harassment and unwanted sexual intercourse with the company's CEO Dov Charney. The complaint reports that Charney continued to send her explicit texts and nude pictures. The victim was forced to work long hours and report to Charney her sexual history. On her 18th birthday, he enticed her to visit his apartment where he allegedly answered the door in his underwear, forcibly dragged her into the apartment, held her for several hours and coerced her into several unwanted oral and anal sex acts. The young girl's experiences at the hands of American Apparel CEO Charney led to her hospitalization, a nervous breakdown, and a $250,000,000 lawsuit.

But as this pattern reveals, once again a person in power is seemingly excused for bad behavior when no one speaks up. In this case, several ex-employees had already reported sexually lewd behavior from this CEO who had reportedly held several staff meetings in the nude. People knew about Charney's sexually repulsive behavior.

Time and again, at Novartis, Dunkin Donuts, American Apparel and now at Penn State, we see how silence renders compliance and acquiesce to the most heinous of situations. Individuals in our organizations might be concerned about losing a job, or facing other punishment for speaking the truth, but a job, even in a recession is replaceable; a child's innocence is not. Further, there are several federal laws that protect employees from retaliation if they speak up in support of someone's civil rights. In all of these cases, the targets were in a weaker position on the organizational chart; further, in most of these cases, silence cultivated an environment where sexual acts were perpetrated against under aged targets.

Has the moral compass been lost, creating a culture where silence fuels scandals? These aforementioned cases highlight the fact that other people typically know about assault, harassment and misconduct. The message here is that we all need to be custodians of our community, at work or at home. We need to intervene to stop or report assault, molestation, or harassment. In the case of child molestation and assault, it is illegal not to report it.

With ongoing harassment, discrimination and bullying, the long term affects destroy productivity, organizations and careers. Legally, if someone steps forward to advocate for someone else's civil rights, they are protected under Title VII from retaliation. As many reports indicate, people in power, bosses, bullies, managers, and supervisors abuse those under them because the organization allows it. Let me say that again: abuse occurs because the organization allows it. After reading the Penn State Grand Jury Report, it is clear, that Happy Valley brought this sad day on itself, by fostering a culture that turns a blind eye while children suffered in silence. As we are just beginning to see the tip of this ice berg surface, there are no winners, just degrees of devastation.

Do you have a situation where silence made a bad situation even worse? Or, do you have a situation where speaking up saved people from further harm? Please share your story here.

For more detailed information on harassment, discrimination and workplace bullying or for a calendar of upcoming webinars on these topics, visit DiversityTrainingConsultants.com. Dr. Leah P. Hollis is the host of the webinars and she is President and Founder of Patricia Berkly LLC, a diversity training and consulting group which assists organizations is staying compliant with EEOC guidelines. Check out Dr. Hollis' recent book Unequal Opportunity: Fired Without Cause, Filing With The EEOCon Amazon.com.

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