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The Changing Tide of Harassment in the Workplace: Will the Courts Follow Suit?


It only takes one brave person to go public, and others will follow. Women are breaking the culture of silence. Last week there was outcry after Matt Lauer of NBC News was terminated amid allegations of very detailed workplace harassment. The tides of accepted norms are changing in America. This change is long overdue, but it is an encouraging sign that women’s expectation to feel safe in any work environment is finally being acknowledged.

NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack wrote in his memo November 29, “Our highest priority is to create a workplace environment where everyone feels safe and protected, and to ensure that any actions that run counter to our core values are met with consequences no matter who the offender.”

That is exactly it. Men who act decently are just as capable of acting inappropriately. It is only in an environment of little to no consequences that men self-righteously step over professional boundaries— putting their female counterparts in the difficult position of compliance or facing the loss of potential promotional opportunities.

In order to change the way women are viewed in the workplace, we have to address the awkward and unconformable fact that some men do act inappropriately. The fact that the incident only surfaces years after the inappropriate act happened does not change the inherent wrongness of that illicit act. If we as a society want to do better by women, we need to acknowledge the institutionalized misogyny that is proving itself rampant. Women need to feel safe and believed when they come forward with reports of misconduct by colleagues. It should not matter how beloved a talking head is on a morning news program, the inappropriate conduct has to be sufficiently addressed.

While we might hope that the courts are equipped to handle such cases—in fact, the courts have historically held a very high standard for establishing grounds for a workplace harassment suit. The landmark case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids harassment in the workplace based on sex, race, color, religion or national origin. In the ruling, the Supreme Court used the words “severe or pervasive” to describe the bar of conduct a perpetrator must reach before meeting the legal definition of harassment. This interpretation of Title VII has had a pervasive impact on subsequent cases, establishing a dangerous precedent of statute interpretation. Like many of the civil rights victories in the later part of the twentieth century, society will have to lead the way on what these new standards of workplace decency will look like until our legal institutions catch up.

It is incumbent on all of us to recognize the shifting tide of sexual harassment consequences and celebrate what this means for the American workplace and its participants. We can only hope the courts will catch up to society’s recognition of a woman’s right to work in a respectful and professional environment.

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