Lessons Organizations can Learn from Deshaun Watson Sexual Harassment Case
After 15 months of investigation into sexual misconduct claims against the Cleveland Browns quarterback, Deshaun Watson, the NFL has delivered its verdict. The star has been found to have violated the league's personal conduct policy and has been suspended for six games.
The ruling will come as a relief for the football player who would have ended up missing the whole 2022 NFL season had the NFL board had their way. The NFL had recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and wait until a full season is over to apply to be reinstated.
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A little background
On March 16, 2021, a massage therapist identified as Ashley Solis sued Watson claiming that he had sexually assaulted her during a session at the therapist’s home in March 2020. The suit states that Watson touched the woman with his penis before soliciting sex.
The therapist notes that this made her uncomfortable prompting her to end the session abruptly.
On the evening of the same day that the lawsuit was filed, Watson issued a statement on Twitter denying the allegations.
“As a result of a social media post by a publicity-seeking plaintiff’s lawyer, I recently became aware of a lawsuit that has apparently been filed against me. I have not yet seen the complaint, but I know this: I have never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect,” the tweet read.
Watson further noted that it was all a ploy to extort him claiming that the plaintiff’s lawyer had approached him before filing the suit and made a baseless six-figure settlement demand.
More women come out
After the first suit, it didn’t take long before more women came out claiming to have been sexually harassed by the quarterback. By June 6, 2022, a total of 24 women had filed civil lawsuits against Deshaun Watson and, interestingly, all the women in the cases were massage therapists.
Two of the women filed sexual assault cases with one woman claiming to have been intimidated to perform oral sex on the player. The second woman reported that Watson forcefully grabbed her buttocks and between her legs.
In a different case, a massage therapist claims to have met Watson at the Houstonian Hotel in August of 2020 for a session where the player proceeded to disrobe completely. The woman claims that Watson exposed himself, refused to put his clothes back on and requested that she massage his penis. She did not oblige and Watson reacted by making intentional movements which caused her to touch his penis.
There was also another case in California that does not involve sexual assault, but the therapists claims what was supposed to be a routine massage session took a different turn after a series of inappropriate actions from Watson.
She claims that the massage was supposed to end in 90 minutes but the quarterback asked to extend it for another hour. Then while she was working on his quads, inner thighs, and abdomen as requested, the player developed an erection and began clenching and slowly “thrusting the air.” The therapist says that she thought the movements were a pain response to her deep-tissue work, so she inquired if the player was alright. She notes that he said he was okay and stopped thrusting for a short time.
Important lessons organizations can learn from Watson's sexual harassment case
The above are just some examples from the long list of lawsuits accusing Watson of engaging in a pattern of lewd behavior with women hired to provide personal services. All the cases involve incidents of the player either coercing the women to touch him sexually, exposing himself to them, or moving his body in ways that forced them to touch his penis.
Now, the question of whether or not the quarterback is guilty is not for us but the courts to decide. The claimants' attorney Tony Buzbee already took the matter to the Houston police department, and the Harris County District Attorney’s office potentially seeking criminal charges, but grand juries in both Harris county and Brazoria County declined to indict Watson.
But while we can’t be judges of the case, we can use it to create awareness around sexual harassment and prevent similar incidents from happening.
And it all starts with employee training.
1. Make employee sexual harassment training mandatory
See, the unfortunate thing about harassment is that in most cases, the harasser is not even aware that they are harassing the victim. They don’t imagine they are causing emotional distress to the victim.
Take Deshaun Watson for instance. The guy is only 26 years old and is making over a million dollars per year in salary alone. He is one of the best in the NFL at his position which would explain why the Cleveland Browns made him a 5-year offer worth $230 million against the backdrop of sexual assault cases making him the 21st highest-paid athlete in the world. Then to top it off, Watson is a good-looking guy by many people’s standards.
Putting all these factors into consideration, then you will begin to understand how the quarterback could do the alleged activities and yet not see it as harassment. In his mind he might believe that he is rich, famous, and good-looking, and, therefore, women cannot say no to him.
It’s the same in a workplace environment. An employee may end up harassing another employee unknowingly just because they imagine a certain character trait they possess makes them irresistible.
It’s your responsibility as an employer to prevent these kinds of situations by ensuring that your employees have a clear understanding of what constitutes harassment. Go through activities that qualify as sexual harassment using real-life scenarios to ensure it gets across to the employees.
Your employees also need to understand that sexual misconduct does not just involve touching. It can also be verbal. Whistling, staring, cat calls, or making sexual comments and gestures that a normal person would consider inappropriate also qualify as harassment. So does constantly asking a colleague out for a date even after they have made it clear they are not interested.
You also need to train your employees on how to deal with cases of harassment including having a step-by-step reporting process.
Lastly, make sure your employees know the expected consequences of their actions. Could be suspension, termination of their contract, or any other penalty set by your organization. On top of the 6-game suspension, Watson also ended up losing sponsorship deals with Nike Rolex, among other major brands.
2. Have a solid code of conduct to govern your organization
A code of conduct is a business policy that outlines accepted and prohibited employee behavior in an organization. It serves as a statement of what values a company stands for and the ethical as well as business conduct that employees should possess to help achieve the company's vision and goal.
If the NFL did not have a code of conduct, then Watson’s actions would have gone unpunished and that’s not a pretty message to send across.
A code of conduct can also minimize your company’s liability in the event of a lawsuit against one of your employees. If an employee is accused of sexually harassing another person, the legal consequences for the company will not be as severe if you have a code of conduct declaring the company’s stand against such behavior which was further reinforced through training.
It shows an initiative by the company to provide a safe working environment for the employees.
However, it’s not just enough that you have a code of conduct, the document needs to, among other things, comprehensively cover allowed and prohibited behaviors and define the consequences of non-compliance for complete effectiveness.
The main reason that Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge appointed to oversee player discipline by the NFL and NFL Players Association could not grant the NFL their request for a more severe ruling was because their code of conduct lacked provisions that allowed her to make the ruling.
“Defining prohibited conduct plays a critical role in the rule of law, enabling people to predict the consequences of their behavior. It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.” Robinson wrote.
3. Have a response plan in place for when a sexual harassment case is reported
If an employee comes forward to report sexual harassment, it’s the company’s job to stop it from happening and take the necessary action against the harasser.
The organization should conduct a thorough investigation to establish the facts of the case and then react accordingly. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case and a lot of organizations find themselves on the receiving end of the law for failing to play their part.
In July this year, the Texans reached settlements with 30 women who made claims or were prepared to make claims against the NFL organization for its alleged "enabling" of Watson's behavior. Watson was a member of the Houston-based team before his switch to Cleveland Browns and the alleged incidents that happened during his time with the team.
One of the women who filed a lawsuit against the Houston Texans organization alleged that the team turned a blind eye to Watson’s behavior toward female massage therapists and facilitated his behavior by providing him with a nondisclosure agreement to give to therapists and supplying the venue he used for some of his appointments.
By having a response plan to sexual harassment cases and acting on the plan, you can reduce reputational damage to your organization as well as financial losses through potential lawsuits and non-compliance fines.
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