What If You Worked For A Boss Like Former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney?

What can we learn from the dismissal of American Apparel's CEO on the topic of sexual harassment at work?

Dov Charney was removed as CEO of American Apparel this week after an extended period of bad behavior.

Charney reportedly crossed boundaries with his employees in ways that were completely inappropriate, and he has been accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment by employees.

Flickr user Anna Fayet

His behavior went on for a long time before the board decided to act. That means that many employees had to work under conditions of harassment for a long time before anything was done.

One complicating factor in a situation like this is that our culture excuses bad behavior by creative individuals. Artists, musicians, and even business leaders with big personalities garner respect for their ability to push boundaries within their genre. However, there is a broad belief that people who push boundaries in one area of their lives will have a hard time respecting boundaries in other aspects of their lives.

That belief can be used to justify harassment and (worse yet) assault. It is one thing to shake our heads at someone else’s wild lifestyle when it involves consensual relationships among adults. But, we should not look away at behavior that crosses the line into nonconsensual sexual talk and action.

So, what should you do if you are working for a boss like Dov Charney?

Speak up.

If you are the victim of harassment or if you see someone else being harassed, you need to speak out and document what happened. Every company should have someone (often in human resources) who is responsible for handling sexual harassment situations. Contact them immediately. Keep records of what happened.

If your complaints are not acted on immediately, consider contacting a lawyer. If one person is being harassed in the workplace, there is a good chance that others are as well. It is important for someone acting inappropriately in the workplace to get feedback as quickly as possible that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.

Keep your eyes open.

Even if you are not the target of harassment, you need to be aware of what is going on around you. Office environments can take on an air of permissiveness if inappropriate comments are let slide. If you see something or hear something, speak up.

Be safe.

If you have any concerns about someone you are meeting with, it is important to keep yourself safe. Avoid closed-door meetings, after-work visits, or situations in which you might find yourself alone with someone that makes you uncomfortable at work.

This is the advice that is most difficult to follow, because many harassers will make you feel guilty for feeling uncomfortable. If a coworker or boss puts you in a situation in which you are uncomfortable, it is actually okay to say something. A person who has no ill intent will never make you feel uncomfortable for speaking up. Anyone who tries to turn your discomfort against you is not working in your best interests.

Don’t give creative people a free pass.

Many people who are highly creative are low on the personality dimension of conscientiousness. Conscientious people are rule-following, while people who are creative are willing to bend the rules or even to dispense with them altogether.

That said, people’s actions are determined by a combination of their own characteristics and the situation they find themselves in. Situations play a profound role in people’s behavior. Help make your workplace a space where harassment is simply not permitted. A strong message from the environment that harassment is not allowed will not dampen the creativity of a visionary leader. It will just make clear where the boundaries are.

[Image: Flickr user Juanma Pérez Rabasco]

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5 Comments

  • cjhanlon2013

    I am pretty sure you didn't mean to make all creative people sound like untrained, unchecked urge based monkeys....

    If we didn't have people who bend the rules, we still WOULD be urge based monkeys.

  • I didn't mean to imply that. My point was that lots of creative people are low in conscientiousness, which means that they are willing to bend the rules. For some of those people, that means stepping across the line when it comes to sexuality.

    Unfortunately, the creative folks who are also successful often get a free pass to do inappropriate things (at least for a while). And that is a problem.

  • Those living under this kind of behavior should - should be able to go to a board member - someone outside the chain-of-command to complain. But realistically board members are already there because of the CEO and the potential for money. There really isn't an organizational requirement for decency and respect and the courage to stand up against bad behavior. The solution is for people to be internally committed to doing what's right - even when it costs. That and not the ability to make money is the face of leadership.

  • Hishaam Siddiqi

    An exceptionally well written, highly necessary article during a very unfortunate time in our world - thank you.