What Harvey Weinstein Taught Me About Workplace Culture

Katie Spencer

Katie Spencer

Here’s the truth: Your organization’s culture is defined by the behaviors you tolerate. As a leader, you are responsible for shaping the culture you desire: one where employees feel safe and are able to thrive.

Unfortunately, we’ve heard too many recent accounts of leaders who created and fostered toxic cultures that left employees vulnerable, stripped of their voice, and with no defense or advocates.

I worked at Miramax Films between 1995 and 1997, just as Gwyneth Paltrow appeared as Harvey Weinstein’s latest ingénue. I was 22, just out of college, and was assistant to the senior vice president of communications. Perhaps because I was buried in the corporate pecking order, I was not aware of the sexual harassment and assault concerns at the top.

My boss, a woman who reported directly to Weinstein, warned me repeatedly never to accept work assignments from anyone but her. I remember thinking she was a complete control freak. Now, I wonder if she was protecting me from much more.

The culture at Miramax was so venomous and stressful that everyone was constantly on edge. People were miserable. People were scared. The bullying modeled at the top drove the behavior of all the leadership I met during my short Miramax career.

I believe the fear of losing one’s job, dreams, identity – fear of losing everything – led many good people to become complicit in the bullying and harassment at the top of Miramax. Weinstein never missed an opportunity to let people know how much he could take from them. Fear is a potent weapon. A culture built on fear contorts people’s understanding of what is acceptable.

Bullying and sexual harassment are the result of the continued tolerance of intolerable behavior. This climate will change only when it is no longer acceptable to make lewd jokes, scream at employees, touch someone without permission or insist on sexual favors for career advancement.

The good news: You don’t have to wait for your workplace to become toxic to breathe new life into your culture. Here’s how:

First, take an honest look at the behaviors that are tolerated in your organization. Turn the mirror on yourself and other leaders.

Identify those behaviors that are not acceptable, then identify behaviors that support the culture you want to shape.

Communicate to every single person in your organization what will no longer be tolerated and how they can clearly recognize those behaviors. Also share which behaviors will be encouraged and rewarded.

Model the desired behaviors across the entire leadership team.

Hold everyone accountable. Call out unacceptable behaviors on the spot.

Build trust throughout the organization. Actively engage employees in candid conversations, which takes time and commitment.

Promote diversity. Diversify the team of voices that determine which behaviors are considered intolerable.

If you lead a workplace where everyone feels empowered, valued, heard and respected, your organization will be able to perform at its best.

Katie Spencer is a Cultural Strategist at PeopleCap Advisors. Reach her at katie@peoplecapadvisors.com.