Countless women have faced sexual harassment in the workplace over generations. The scope of the problem gained significant attention in the last year with the #MeToo movement, which itself has led to sexual harassment claims in many industries.
Executive SummaryThis is the first of a Carrier Management four-part series looking at sexual harassment in the property/casualty insurance industry. In Part 1, Carrier Management, Insurance Journal and Claims Journal editors spoke directly and at length with four women who shared their accounts of alleged harassment. Subsequent installments focus on one woman’s individual story, the legal perspective on whether sexual harassment challenges have improved, and also Carrier Management survey results and reader perspectives on the issue.
Carrier Management wondered whether this is a big problem for the property/casualty insurance industry as well.
Insurance remains a field where management more often than not continues to be white and male, even as the industry has made some strides toward diversity in recent years. A 2016 study from McLagan, an independent subsidiary of Aon Hewitt, found 85 percent of executive leadership at public companies in the insurance industry is male, with mutual insurers reaching nearly 75 percent.
Certainly, male leadership does not automatically lead to conditions ripe for sexual harassment or sexist behavior. However, this dynamic has led to sexual harassment claims in other industries.
Accounts from current and former female insurance industry veterans reveal that the P/C insurance industry has not been immune. In fact, a Carrier Management reader survey revealed that the problem has hit much of the industry.
The reader survey (with 267 responses) found carrier and agency employees have experienced sexual harassment in equal measure. Most were female, and respondents noted incidents going back decades to as recently as 2017.
Victims experienced inappropriate humor or joking, sexual innuendos about their appearance, persistent flirting, unwanted physical contact, and leering or obscene gestures. (A small number of respondents acknowledged experiencing these incidents but did not equate them as forms of sexual harassment.)
About half of survey respondents said they had never shared their experiences, and just 13 percent of those who reported an incident said they were satisfied with how human resources handled the matter.
Only about 21 percent said they had a satisfactory outcome from talking to a superior.
Below, we recount real-life accounts of several women in the industry who faced sexual harassment in their professional insurance industry lives. Carrier Management, Insurance Journal and Claims Journal spoke directly at length with each.
The accounts detailed have not been independently verified.
Of the four accounts listed, one individual was willing to be on the record, two were willing to use partial names, and one agreed to speak anonymously. After careful discussion and debate, Carrier Management chose, instead, to use pseudonyms.
In the age of Google, LinkedIn, Zillow and other online services, it is possible for someone to be identified—or misidentified—with a minimum of information. For this reason, and because the accounts are not independently verified, we wanted to consider safety and privacy in order to protect the identities of both the accusers and those accused.
The Liability Supervisor
The sexual harassment one woman faced was enough to alter the course of her career.
She had been in the industry for about seven years when she took a job with a now defunct Midwestern regional insurer in 1996, working in the claims department as a liability supervisor. The liability director—her direct supervisor—began sexually harassing her.
Though significantly older, he persistently flirted and made suggestive jokes and comments about her appearance. His actions were largely done in person or over the phone.
“The inappropriate/uncomfortable behavior started not long after I began working there, and it continued until I reported it to human resources,” she said.
“He would continually call me into his office to talk about nonrelated work items. We would be having conversations, and he would stop mid-sentence to tell me how beautiful I was, to tell me how beautiful my eyes were, to tell me just how amazing I was. It was every single conversation, and it was so uncomfor-table. I would try to redirect the conver-sation,and he would continue to come back to my bodily features and how enamored he was with me. It was almost every day.”
His inappropriate conduct was in the presence of co-workers and supervisors.
—The Liability Supervisor
“We were a very tight-knit group, and we would do things after work. He would join us and…it would carry over to happy hours that we would do following work on Friday, or if we went somewhere for lunch,” she said. Suggestive and inappropriate comments continued “no matter where we were.”
This went on for about a year-and-a-half.
“I couldn’t change careers. I couldn’t change jobs readily because I was a single parent and that was my income. I was very emotionally distraught by the harassment and the attention that was being directed at me,” she said. “I wouldn’t answer my phone when I knew it was him calling. I would hide in the bathroom. I did everything I could to avoid being one-on-one with him. He was my direct report, so it made it very difficult for me to just do my job.”
A supervisor in another department approached her about her boss’s inappropriate behavior and encouraged her to report the harassment to human resources. She did, but two weeks went by before she received a response.
“I found out that they were reassigning him to the home office, which was three hours away. They still kept him on for at least another month,” she said. “Even after I reported it, I still had to see him every day for a minimum of a month thereafter.” Even after reporting the harassment, she said she had to continue working closely with the individual until he was transferred. One time, both ended up in the same elevator together.
“It was absolutely one of the most uncomfortable situations—secondary to the harassment—because of the look on his face of hate, and me being seriously concerned as far as what his reaction was going to be on the elevator with him. It was very disturbing,” she said.
She felt humiliated after reporting the situation, especially because her co-supervisors weren’t supportive. The fact that everyone knew what was going on made a bad situation even worse. While he made inappropriate comments to others, she felt she bore the brunt of it.
“There was nobody who didn’t know, even up at the top, and nobody did anything about it. Nobody cared. They covered it up, other than just moving him to another office. That was almost worse than the harassment itself,” she said.
She said that she knew she had to go to HR but had hesitated because she was worried that nothing would be done, which was the end result anyway.
“In essence, that was exactly what was done—nothing,” she said. “It was just a Band-Aid put on the situation to make it look like they were doing something about it, but they really weren’t.”
She felt the situation derailed her career path and may have led to a demotion to senior adjuster at her next job performance review. “It stopped and eliminated my career in the insurance industry, which was a career that I really liked, but I was very disgusted by the hierarchy and the male dominance in the insurance industry at the time,” she said. “Once it was reported and the decision was made to keep him on for that length of time, I was done. I knew it was time to move on.”
Even as she moved forward with a new career in the pharmaceutical industry, the experience affected how she worked with men. “There was definitely a mistrust going forward in other industries and, I guess, a caution of putting yourself in any one-on-one situations with male counterparts in any profession because it is so prevalent,” she said.
A female adjuster with six years of industry experience said she has experienced sexual harassment from a male department supervisor, working for a nonstandard high-risk auto insurer.
While he’s not her direct manager, he was the first one to interview her for the job. Employed with this insurer for about two-and-a-half years, she said the harassment didn’t begin right away. About a year in, he reached out to her through company chat.
“He started messaging me…and saying stuff about how he liked the way I dressed or he liked my outfit that day, that sort of thing,” she said. “And then it progressed to where he ended up finding my Facebook page and he sent me a message through Facebook, telling me stuff about how he couldn’t hire me because he couldn’t control himself around me and how he’s wanted me for a long time.”
She explained that he was careful to cover his tracks, deleting incriminating Gmail chat messages between the two.
Since the supervisor has been there for about six years, and a manager for two, she is concerned about how co-workers and supervisors will perceive her, so she has yet to report the situation to HR.
“I haven’t because, honestly, I think that it would cause drama in the office and drama in my career. People would probably blame me for him being fired. He’s a pretty popular guy in the office,” she said.
Though she hasn’t witnessed this conduct toward anyone else in the office, she believes her supervisor knows, based on comments he made to her about her decision to leave the job for a brief period. She added that the inappropriate behavior continues even with regular sexual harassment training.
“It’s an online training course, and they send it out yearly. They send out emails every couple of months about sexual harassment policies also,” she added.
The experience has left her worried about the future of her career. She left the company six months ago but returned to what continues to be an awkward situation because the insurer offers the best pay in the area.
“He’s not my supervisor…and he only stops by my desk. He never talks to any of my other co-workers, so I feel like they notice,” she explained. “It’s awkward when I walk by his office because his office is near the women’s restroom, so I have to walk by it to go to the restroom. I know that he’s watching me and he sees me walk by. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
To avoid him, she walks a different path to get to the restroom. There are other issues, however, because while she has no plans to report the behavior, she is worried because he is slated to move to an office closer to her cubicle. “I have a feeling he’s going to be stopping by my desk a lot more often, especially because he’s really good friends with my supervisor. I think now that their offices are going to be right next to each other, he’s probably going to hear me and my supervisor talking, hear my voice and come in there more often.”
Despite the ongoing harassment, she plans on completing the necessary education to become a senior-level adjuster and hopes to become a manager in the future.
“It’s hard being a woman in the workplace sometimes, especially when you’re an attractive woman. Men don’t seem to respect you as much if you’re an attractive woman,” she said. “I just finished my master’s degree in October. I have a lot of experience in insurance for my age; I started working in insurance when I was 21. And sometimes I feel like people look past that if you’re an attractive woman in the workplace.”
The Commercial Account Manager
The commercial account manager had been in the insurance industry for 18 years when she started a new job at a national brokerage firm about eight years ago.
Sexual harassment from her male supervisor began soon after. She recalled the supervisor sitting on her desk in front of her so he could look down her shirt, leaning in and whispering in her ear. Sometimes he told her to come into his office, pull a chair over and sit right next to him. On several occasions he asked her to go to lunch, just the two of them, and sent inappropriate and unprofessional emails.
“There was one where he made a reference to ‘shooting his wad,'” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me? Did you just say this?'”
The commercial account manager said she never reciprocated the inappropriate behavior, which would anger him. He would then berate her in front of colleagues or privately issue threats to her about what would happen if she reported him.
Another employee who sat near her witnessed more than one instance of inappropriate behavior and would comfort her after, and she did confide in other people outside of her department. But she said she didn’t go to the company’s HR department and file a formal complaint out of fear of retribution.
“I never told HR what happened because he made it clear that he could make or break me there. He had been there for well over 10 years, and he was a big-time producer there and money talks,” she said. “I was a new person, fresh off a divorce and needed my job because I have kids.”
She said she tried to stick it out, but as time passed and the behavior went on, the situation began to affect her physically.
“I didn’t feel I could speak up. I was very afraid and had to find a way out,” she said.
Six months later, she ended up resigning while the harasser was out of the office and received what she described as a panicked phone call from him afterward asking why she quit. She told him she was done and said he proceeded to repeatedly call and text her over the weekend on her company phone. She let HR know then that she would not be returning to the office that Monday and why—and forwarded them the texts and emails he had been sending.
After leaving, she decided to notify the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about her experience and had the emails and texts as proof. “I went to them because I had learned there was a person before me and who knows how many other people, and I just wanted [him] to stop,” she said.
The EEOC mediated the situation and she settled for two weeks’ severance. She said that was enough for her to move on and ensure her reputation wouldn’t be harmed in a way that would prevent her from finding another job in the industry.
“If I didn’t have kids that depended on me, I would have handled that situation differently, but not when I have two mouths to feed who look up to me.”
She found another job in insurance and still works in the industry today. She said she has never dealt with sexual harassment like what happened to her before or since. Still, she said she thinks there is an issue that needs to be talked about because insurance remains a male-dominated industry and she has faced other instances of misogynistic behavior.
“There have been times when I have been in a meeting with a producer and have been shushed or had a hand put in front of my face to stop talking. That’s something I wouldn’t imagine happening to a man,” she said.
She also has a message to men in the industry who are perpetuating this behavior: “Just stop. Think about the women you love in your life and if you would want them to be treated this way…How would you feel?”
Her advice to anyone going through an experience like what happened to her: “You have to do what is right for you.”
She said she thinks the #MeToo Movement is important, but she also worries it has become a witch hunt and people accused should be able to defend themselves without having their names smeared. But ultimately, she said, it is a valid movement that can highlight how harassment negatively affects people.
“I support it because I have been there—man, have I been there,” she said.
The P/C Insurance Veteran
The 35-year P/C insurance veteran was 19 when it first happened.
She was working at a small independent agency in the Midwest as a “personal lines girl.” One day, one of two owner/agents walked to the outer office where she worked, motioning for her to hold her hand out. “In it he put the nut you might put on a bolt,” she recalled. “He put it in my hand and he gave kind of a smirky sneer and said, ‘Don’t worry, you will get the rest later.'”
She said she experienced 10 incidents of harassment of varying degrees of severity over her insurance industry career. She did not report all of them because insurance “was a good old boys’ industry” where “if you were a woman that was talented enough, worked hard enough to get included in that world, you understood that there were certain rules to be followed, and those included keeping your mouth shut about things that happened.”
The first incident was that agency co-owner, who harassed her more than once and tried to prevent her from getting promoted. She complained to the “good partner,” and he offered her a promotion and a raise, but she decided to move on to another job because of the work environment. Three weeks later, she landed another position, but her last paycheck at the old one did not reflect her raise because the “bad partner” refused to give the added money.
After that, at other positions, there were incidents where she faced affronts to her personal space. This included inappropriate touching—a hand rubbed “accidentally” across a breast or placed on a knee during a business meeting or meal, or a male manager or colleague rubbing his leg against hers during dinner.
One time, she was an executive at an auto insurer, meeting with a fellow colleague and the director of HR in her office, sitting at a round meeting table discussing a project. She needed to plug in a laptop she was using. The male HR executive had M.S. and was in a wheelchair, so she asked her other male colleague to reach down and plug the laptop into the baseboard outlet. The colleague told her she was closer and could do it, but she explained it would be awkward because she was wearing a dress.
“That is exactly why I want you to do it,” the colleague replied. She remembered the HR director being in shock, telling the other vice president that the comment was inappropriate and he needed to plug the laptop in. The colleague did so and laughed.
She was pregnant at the time. Weeks later, she was wearing a dress at the office, in a meeting again with her male colleague.
“This other gentleman and I, whatever we were talking about, I wanted him to walk a certain way through the cubicles to get to the lobby to drop something off,” she recalled. She remembered being about seven months pregnant at the time. Her colleague replied: “I can’t waddle like that.”
She filed a complaint with her employer’s general counsel’s office and said he took her complaint seriously. The head of HR was a witness to the first incident, and the complaint ended up with the CEO, a man in his late 30s or early 40s with two young children. When she met with the CEO, he asked a question that the GC had previously asked: “What do you want from us? Are you looking for money?”
Shocked about the question, she recalled: “I said I wanted it to stop.”
“I wanted him to understand how serious it is, and that there be some consequences” for the harasser.
Before the two incidents took place, she had worked for the accused harasser, and she also made clear that she did not want to work for him in the future.
The accused’s response: He was only kidding.
The CEO suggested the fact that he was only joking should make her feel better. She told the CEO: “Imagine that I am your daughter and she is going through this, would it make you, as her father, feel better to know that he was just joking around?”
She learned from this that it was acceptable at the company where she worked for male employees to “kid around” about such things.
She left the industry in late 2011 and became a teacher within a year. Today, she teaches risk management and insurance at a Midwestern university.
She offered “a qualified yes” when asked if these issues had improved in the industry. Within her last seven or eight years of working in insurance, there was a senior management-endorsed process to investigate sexual harassment as long as alleged victims spoke up. But sexual harassment is still a problem.
“There continued to be multiple situations where a woman would come to me and say, ‘What should I do? This is what happened’…I would tell them, ‘This is what you do, this is your right, this is what you must do'” whether a man or woman, she said.
Today, she talks about sexual harassment with younger male and female students. Male students worry about being falsely accused or misunderstanding a woman’s intentions. Female students still worry about harassment itself and what to say or do if and when it happens.
“Unlike my generation, these young ladies ask these questions and they want to know. They have a fierceness about them, a courage, a presence that says, ‘Anyone who tries that on me will regret the day they touched me,'” she said.
“They have a whole different attitude that this is not the world of the good old boy who gets to do what he wants to do without any damage done. That has been very impressive to me.”
Data compiled by Pam Simpson