"No organization is squeaky clean," notes Betty McPhilimy, retired chief audit executive at Northwestern University in Lake Forest, Ill. "But if leadership is suspect, as far as not doing the right thing or only doing it when people are watching, the organization tends to take on the culture at the top." Harassment mitigation "can't play out at a manager level," she emphasizes. "It's got to be the same up and down. If not, your shield has a bunch of cracks in it."
That's why so many president-level executives resign amid harassment scandals: Organizations need substantive visual change, even if no one ever proves the executives knew what was happening. "Everyone generally realizes it's difficult to know what's going on at every single desk," McPhilimy says. "But that's what controls are for." And if the allegations concern more than a one-time incident, people assume that's how the organization runs — so "if you put in new leaders, people feel vindicated and you don't taint the new leaders with the sins of the past."
For the accused, there's no "innocent until proven guilty" in civil suits, explains Brian Koegle, a partner in the employment and labor law department of the Los Angeles office of Poole & Shaffery LLP. "The presumption of innocence is a construct of criminal law," he says. You're not found "guilty" in a civil case, you're found "liable," and your burden of proof is 50 percent plus one. He adds, "I would argue that in this climate, you're presumed guilty. If someone had the fortitude to come forward with a claim of harassment, juries are primed to believe that person is telling the truth." Particularly when numerous accusers come forward and social media rapidly publicizes accusations.