In the wake of sexual harassment allegations against noted architect Richard Meier, practitioners are pushing to make women more aware of inappropriate office behavior and more vocal in reporting it, with tougher misconduct sanctions in company ethics codes.

At an April 16 New York City seminar sponsored by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, participants said incidents, victims and abusers have been hidden in arbitrations and non-disclosure agreements.

Nine women have now publicly aired sexual harassment accusations against the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, 83, who is on a six-month leave from his New York City-based firm, Richard Meier & Partners Architects, said panel moderator Robin Pogrebin, the  New York Times reporter who broke the story on his alleged abuse.

He has issued an apology, but in a media statement, the firm said the allegations “do not reflect [its] ethos and culture.” Pogrebin said both verbal and physical abuse “can damage people for life.”

Employment attorney Robert Ottinger pointed to protections for alleged harassers through secrecy agreements.

“Why do we treat this behavior as a crime if it occurs in the street, but not in the office?” he said. While he acknowledged that laws protecting accusers “are not great,” he encouraged women to “create evidence” of alleged incidents to bolster a case.

In a March 28 statement, the foundation asked design firms to add a sexual misconduct ban to their ethics codes and wants state licensing boards to mandate related training of all licensees.

It also asked industry groups “to refrain from bestowing awards on individuals or firms that harbor individuals who have been found to engage in sexual misconduct,” and wants employers to create a process to report incidents “without fear of repercussion” and to treat alleged misconduct “seriously with gradations of punishment.”

Laws Catch Up

Amendments enacted earlier this month to New York City and state laws expand employee sexual-harassment bans to outside contractors, vendors and service providers, effective immediately.

State rule changes also ban, by July 11, mandatory arbitration and non-disclosure clauses in sexual-harassment pacts, “unless it is the express wish of the claimant” to include one, says an update by city-based law firm Tarter Krinsky & Drogin LLP.

As of Oct. 9, employers must distribute anti-harassment policies and start anti-harassment training. By Jan. 1, bids on certain state contracts must include language affirming the policy and training.

The state training mandate applies to firms with four or more employees; the city training rule covers city-based employers with 15 or more staff, effective April 1, 2019. State law now also now allows someone three years from the date of an alleged misconduct incident to file a sexual harassment claim, up from one year. The city law amendments now allow a claim to be brought against a city-based employer with just one employee.

Speaking to the psychology of sexual harassment, Julie Kantor, an executive coach and consultant, told seminar attendees that incidents may get hidden “under the auspices of creative tension,” and that women “have a tendency to do nothing … and just hope it goes away.” She added, “I work with harassers, and I never met one who woke up and decided to be a jerk. They say ‘I was just being friendly.’ ”

Suzanne Pennasilico, chief human resource officer at architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), told attendees that most affected women “don’t come to me, they just leave the firm.”

Mark Regulinski, a former SOM partner, pointed to the need for more women in design firm leadership. He said SOM had one of the most diverse partnerships when he joined in 1979, “but the firm has regressed over time.” Women as AE firm leaders “is not presented as normal,” in the industry, he claimed.

In the Meier case, “I’m certain that Mr. Meier is shocked that people are offended by his behavior,” said Regulinski. “But this has cost the firm, and insurance doesn’t cover it.”

SOM HR chief Pennasilico said that despite generational business-culture change, “it hasn’t happened yet in architecture. We have to create an environment for people to come forward.”