In a ‘Wolf of Wall Street’-like culture, confront and consult a lawyer
At this company, it’s more Wolf than Wall Street.
A New Jersey debt relief firm is in the spotlight for a culture allegedly “so sexually aggressive, morally repulsive, and unlawfully hostile that it is rivaled only by the businesses portrayed in the films ‘Boiler Room’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’” That’s according to a lawsuit filed by a former human resources employee at the American Funding Group, who says she was fired after trying to put an end to the misogynistic practices there.
Per the court documents, senior management regularly called one female employee into an office, where they placed their faces into her breasts and made lewd noises. The company also allegedly hired strippers for office parties, where the working girls engaged in activities like sitting on a male employee’s face. Staff were also reportedly asked to sign a waiver ahead of such events, and were called out for being prudes if they declined to do so.
While the American Funding Group and its affiliated companies are hardly big businesses, its alleged antics take place in context of Silicon Valley darlings like Uber being under fire for tolerating misogynistic cultures at work. But as the soul-searching at the ride-hailing pioneer shows, you don’t have to passively accept a toxic environment at work.
“This business is not normal in this politically correct environment, and by tolerating it, you propagate it for the future.” ” says Debra Benton, co-author of “The Leadership Mind Switch.”
So if you see an ethically questionable act being committed in front of you, say something. “Take a stance by saying it’s inappropriate and then walk out,” says Foram Sheth, a careers coach at Ama La Vida. “It doesn’t matter what level in the organization you are. By not saying something and keeping your head down, you’re contributing to the problem.”
If this is something that pervasively happens, you should then go to HR. “They’re the best equipped to handle these situations,” says Sheth. “So tell them what you’ve observed, how it’s affecting you and ask what they’ll do to address it.” But HR often needs evidence to work since “they can’t do much based on hearsay,” Sheth says. She advises sending an email summary to your colleagues every time you have a conversation about an inappropriate interaction. “You can create a paper trail and have written proof of the actions you’ve taken to date,” she says. “They will need this to help you.”
If you’re comfortable, Sheth thinks offering to be a part of the solution may also be helpful. This may involve stressing the importance of respecting employees, and then highlighting what respect looks like: i.e. no sexual comments or inappropriate parties at work. You may then have to call out bad behavior when you see it.
That said, bear in mind that changing cultures is hard work and often slow going. “If leadership is making decisions” that suggest they’re okay with the status quo, “you have virtually zero power,” says Roy Cohen, a New York careers coach. “In an environment like that, to be the whistleblower makes you the problem,” he says. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
In that case, a lawsuit may be the only solution. “Wall Street would not have changed if not for women suing firms” for sexual harassment, says Cohen, author of “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.”
“Companies sometimes may not modify their practices, unless they’re forced to,” he adds.
Indeed, Uber only forced out its chief executive and engaged in a review of corporate practices, after a complaint by former engineer Susan Fowler went viral.
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