New York City is one of the most exciting real estate markets in the world, and the young leasing manager (whose name has been withheld to protect her identity) was happy to have such a good job in a business she loved. That is until her married senior managing director started asking her out.
According to Tim Absalikov, of the law firm of Yuriy Moshes, after refusing her manager’s advances dozens of times, she finally agreed to a dinner, hoping that this would be enough to stop the requests.
However, the director made it clear to her that to keep her job, she would need to make herself available to him sexually whenever his wife was out of town. After a great deal of coercion and to keep her job, the leasing manager complied.
Over time, the young woman decided that she would end the encounters no matter what happened to her career. Thus began more than a year of daily retaliation, public insults and escalating harassment that culminated in her resignation.
This case is one of many that exemplifies the way in which power can be used to derail or destroy a career. Although the woman in this case was able to secure a financial settlement, it doesn’t begin to repair the damage to her career and reputation.
What are the roots of workplace harassment?
There are a variety of ways in which the norms of real estate and the types of people who are attracted to the industry combine to create problematic workplace behavior that can lead to harassment.
According to Emile L’Epplattenier, real estate analyst and a former NYC agent, “In many New York City brokerages, agents tend to skew young, which means office culture is more like a frat house than a professional services company. Throw the gregarious nature of so many people who work in real estate into the mix, and flirting — and even borderline offensive behavior — can become rampant.”
Carney Shegerian, a trial lawyer with Shegerian & Associates who specializes in employee rights with offices in cities all over the U.S., says that sexual harassment is one of the most common discrimination abuses his firm deals with. He sees some of the behavior as endemic to the industry itself.
According to Shegerian, sexual harassment “happens in all industries, but real estate professionals deal with big-dollar transactions and develop a sense of prestige from the properties they move; for some of them there’s definitely a sense of ‘take what you want.’”
This attitude, he says, when combined with prevailing social and cultural attitudes about women, power and sexuality create “a recipe that gives would-be perpetrators a mixture of obliviousness to the fact that their behavior is wrong and a sense of being ‘above’ right and wrong regardless, and thus entitled to do whatever they want.”
How can brokerages prevent harassment and support victims?
Determining best practices for the prevention and response to incidences of sexual harassment is complicated by a number of factors, including the social nature of many real estate-related events, the fact that most agents are independent contractors rather than employees, and the dearth of women in leadership and ownership roles within brokerages.
Alen Kadimyan, CEO of IEI Realty in Glendale, California, says that his company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in leadership roles informs their treatment of sexual harassment allegations.
Taking a cue from the #TimesUp movement in Hollywood, IEI sees identification as key to removing the veil of secrecy that protects serial harassers.
“The IEIRealty leaders and team encourage individual community members to voice their experience and even helps these individuals pursue legal charges and proceedings against their offenders,” he said.
David Miklas, an attorney in Port St. Lucie, Florida, who specializes in workplace harassment offers the following advice to help business owners protect themselves and their employees:
- Create and communicate your company’s anti-harassment policy.
- Properly train management and staff on the policy.
- If a complaint is received, conduct a prompt and thorough investigation, and be prepared to take adequate action — up to and including removal and termination of the harasser.
- Although federal anti-discrimination laws do not impose liability on small businesses (those with fewer than 15 employees), state and local laws may apply.
- Remember that in real estate, harassment isn’t just in the office. It can happen when showing a house or condo.
- Ensure that your business’s culture is designed to prevent, rather than encourage, harassment.
- Learn about new types of harassment training that emphasize respectful and inclusive environments. If your current training does not include elements like bystander intervention, it needs to be updated.
- Ensure that the company president and other high-ranking officials attend any harassment training. This sends a strong message to participants that the company takes the issue seriously.
- If conduct appears to be in a gray area — not quite rising to the level of sexual harassment, but still problematic — pay attention before it morphs into harassment. It is easier to correct “hijinks” in a professional setting and help people to rein in marginal behavior before it becomes outright harassment.
The bottom line? The culture of the company sets the expectations. Make sure that everyone is valued and no one is “above the law” to ensure that the power dynamic in your company won’t be abused.
As an agent, when you’re choosing a brokerage to work for, ask about its policy regarding harassment and discrimination. If it doesn’t have one, ask what it plans to do about it.