Boozing and bad behavior: the harassment perils of the insurance industry

Boozing and bad behavior: the harassment perils of the insurance industry

You would think an industry that’s focused on risk would know how to avoid creating risky problems of its own. But apparently, that’s not so, at least when it comes to sexual harassment.

Today, underwriters and brokers are increasingly aware of issues concerning their clients and sexual misconduct. One obvious wake-up call was the allegations lodged against movie executive Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly abused his power in Hollywood to demand sexual favors from actresses.

Insurance companies that provided liability coverage to Weinstein have faced widespread criticism for underwriting his despicable actions. The producer and his studio have recently reached a $44 million settlement of outstanding lawsuits over his misconduct, which will be provided by insurance. The largest chunk of the amount, $14 million, will go to legal fees, leaving only $30 million for victims.

But while becoming more aware of sexual misconduct in other industries, insurance executives really should have been thinking about themselves as well.

The Mad Men-era heyday of daytime boozing and bad behavior never really ended in insurance. Imagine an industry where wealthy executives routinely travel the world in private planes and yachts, mingling at conferences in posh destinations like Switzerland and Monte Carlo, and hop around to art exhibitions, auto races, polo matches, and sailing competitions.  

The work-hard, pay-even-harder fraternity-type mentality seeps its way into corporate events, cocktail parties and even the day-to-day office environment. Unsurprisingly, when male executives act like entitled frat boys, women they work with can be treated with shocking disrespect.

Take this horrifying story of one woman who worked for insurance brokerage Lockton. The woman, who was of East Asian descent, worked in analytics in the company’s Los Angeles office until just a few years ago. Her husband also worked with her at the company as a fellow analytics employee.

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles state court, she detailed a miserable tenure at the brokerage where she was subjected to repeated instances of humiliating sexual harassment by several of her superiors. They commented crassly on her appearance, her clothing and her body, even after she and her husband expressed discomfort about the “jokes”.

She alleged that at one of the office executives also made sexual remarks referencing her heritage by calling her an “Asian schoolgirl.” Another kissed her forcibly on the lips in an elevator and later locked her briefly in his office, she alleged.

It got worse. During about a decade of working for the company, the woman, unfortunately, developed cancer of the rectum. Her bosses responded to the news by making cruel sexual jokes about her condition, according to her lawsuit. She continued to work and only took brief periods of medical leave to recover from various surgeries. But it came back time and time again. Eventually, she and her husband were fired.

In her lawsuit, the woman said she feared making formal complaints about her treatment because she didn’t want to lose her job and her health insurance. Her legal case remains pending.

Another major insurance brokerage, Aon, is facing investigations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board over her termination after making offhand comments to clients about the sexual harassment she faced on the job. The woman claimed she had been harassed repeatedly and propositioned by a high-ranking executive for one of the brokerage’s corporate clients. She also alleged that she complained about sophomoric and unprofessional behavior by a male employee in her office. The male employee purportedly sent crude messages from his colleagues’ email accounts and posted sexual images and comments to their computer screens and Facebook pages.

Aon alleged that it handled her complaints appropriately, disciplined the employee in question and stopped doing business with the client who propositioned her. However, the company also fired her. The reasons, the brokerage claimed, were a violation of company policies and poor performance. Her performance was about average, according to her employment reviews. The company policy she violated apparently was talking about being harassed. That case remains pending as well.

Finally, there is the granddaddy of all insurance businesses: Lloyd’s of London. Lloyd’s began more than 300 years ago as a London coffee house where businessmen met and placed financial bets on whether ships would sink. It grew into one of the largest and most important insurance entities in the world. No longer in a quaint coffee shop, it occupies a starkly modern office building in the city’s financial center. But many of its practices and traditions have long remained stuck in the past, including a culture of heavy drinking and a fraternity atmosphere.

Alcohol-soaked lunches were a daily custom, and drunken male executives had been known to behave badly with their female coworkers. According to an expose by BusinessWeek, the insurance market routinely hired attractive female assistants to lure in big clients. At lunch and in the evenings, these executives and young women would often visit local pubs and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. Many women reported being pawed at and “attacked” by drunk men they worked with.

One woman in her 30s said she was surprised by the amount of drinking among executives at Lloyd’s, but she went along with it. She went out with coworkers and shared a cab ride home with one of her male colleagues. He was so drunk he was slurring, she said, and he lunged at her and grabbed her. She managed to free herself from his grasp and got out of the car.  

After that, she said she was marginalized on her team and was bullied by her attacker. She lodged a formal complaint but didn’t get the response she was hoping for. She was moved to another part of the business. Meanwhile, he was allowed to keep his job and suffered no ill consequences.

Lloyd’s top brass responded forcefully to the BusinessWeek expose by imposing new rules and banning daytime drinking along with promising severe sanctions for sexual harassment and other bad behavior. It remains to be seen whether those promises are all just talk, or if any action will be taken if and when bad acts occur in the future.

Do you think were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)

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Related topics: hostile workplace (16) | sexual harassment (33) | workplace harassment (21)


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