I wonder if some of the reason we are talking past each other on sexual harassment in employment is colored by true experiences that people we personally know have had with companies that dealt with things very differently.
I used to work in employment law in California (an employee friendly state). I’ve thankfully gotten out of an area of law that makes me want to wring people’s necks but I obtained some practical experience before that. In my experience there are three basic approaches to sexual harassment claims. (Please note this is 2000-2015 experience. The #metoo movement is obviously shaking things up, but not particularly in a ‘measured investigation’ way at present). There is a cover-up/deny approach which repeatedly dismisses the accuser and ends up enabling the abuser. There is a zero tolerance approach which in practice ends up meaning that if you get accused, you get fired. There is a measured approach where things get thoroughly investigated and you get fired if you’ve shown repeated abuse. I’ve seen the first two approaches quite a bit (I’d thumbnail the cover-up approach at about 45% and the zero tolerance approach at about 45%). The well investigated/measured approach would seem to be about 10% of my experience.
The reason the cover-up approach is so prevalent is pretty obvious. It boils down to the fact that harassment can be pretty common, and often has a local (or larger) culture willing to protect it. (See basically all the clear #metoo cases)
The reason the “you’re accused you’re out” approach is so prevalent is pretty obvious, especially if a company has gotten burned for having a previous cover up approach. In a state where you can be fired for any legal reason, “being accused of an instance of sexual harassment” is a hassle where if the company investigates but wrongly doesn’t find sexual harassment, they could get slammed for a cover up. So the incentives to not worry good investigation and over-fire are pretty high. This is made a bit complicated by the presence of other protected classes. Firing someone because they are a protected class is not a legal reason to fire someone, so if you are in a protected class your chances of getting a fairer investigation (as someone who is accused) is higher. This plays in to the whole ‘minorities have it easier’ complex, which while clearly untrue holistically, can obviously feel more true if you are low on the totem pole such that you will get zero-tolerance treatment.
This is made even more complicated because it plays out with HUGE class dimensions. In practice, a company often has an ‘accused and you’re out’ policy for its low level workers, a ‘measured’ approach for some people in the middle, and a ‘cover up’ approach for its executives. (Which is an interesting case of focusing on [usually] race over class. If class were attended to, it would be easier to point out that it is the executives who get the special investigative treatment.)
So when I hear that a woman was sexually harassed in some awful way and the company covered up, I have no trouble believing that.
Also, when I hear that someone was fired on the force of a single accusation of behavior which even if true might not strike most people as a fire-able offense, I have no trouble believing that.
If I hear that both happened at the same company, I used to have trouble believing that, but I don’t any more.
If I hear that heterosexual male was treated under the zero tolerance method, but a homosexual male was given a fuller investigation, that isn’t surprising either.
The current set of legal incentives as they intersect with the nastiness of the rape culture make all of the above VERY likely.
Further, as we start dealing with lower level offenses (things NOT like rape or threatening harassed person’s livelihood if he or she doesn’t give in) the question doesn’t just turn on whether the accuser is lying. A sexually abusive ‘compliment’ has a threat behind it. Some women (because they’ve experienced the dangers of such threats) are hyper cautious about compliments because they are afraid of the threat. Some of them may be so wounded by their experiences that they will occasionally see a threat when there really isn’t one. But very few women seem to be against clearly non-threatening compliments. In fact one of the especially nasty things about exposure to too many abusers is that it poisons the abuse victims’ perception of lots of the wonderful day to day interactions that non-abusers and non-abuse victims enjoy.
This also speaks to the burden of proof problem. One of the long term ways that abuse damages people is that (for totally understandable reasons) they become hyper vigilant about potential signs of abuse. This can happen to the point that they see signs of abuse even when they aren’t really there. This fucks them up because they have trouble maintaining relationships even with non-abusers because they can become triggered by normal day to day interactions that their abusers used against them. (This can become a nasty cycle because a lot of abusers are great at picking up on it somehow and then causing them to question themselves).
I think that we all want it to skew toward “well investigated”, but currently there is very little incentive for that.