How We Compensate Emotional Harm at Work

Matt Lauer, the longtime host of The Host Show, has become the latest mass-culture figure to topple in light of sexual harassment charges at work. People of all genders know the personal and professional harm victims of workplace harassers bear. But new research supports a frustrating conclusion many survivors may already know: Compensation almost never seems proportionate and fair.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have just released a study examining the differences in workplace victim compensation when the damage is emotional or financial. Human resources departments are not in the business of protecting vulnerable employees — they protect the company. But when they do offer restitution, they tend to focus on tangibles, sometimes undercompensating in the process.

Companies tend to award "considerable compensation for emotional loss if that is the only loss," according to a press release. But if an employee suffers both emotional harm and economic harm — the loss of $50 in a traumatizing robbery, for example — companies will only reimburse them monetarily. It gets even more complicated: If an employee suffers emotional and monetary loss, but the monetary loss is small, the company tends to compensate as though there was no financial harm done, i.e., generously. But there's no telling where the line is from situation to situation.

"It would be better to say 'I was so scared that I lost two nights' sleep' than to say 'I was so scared that I lost two nights' sleep and one day's work,'" according to the study. "If the victim mentions one day's work, the mediator would likely compensate the victim for only her one day's pay. If the victim does not mention one day's work, the mediator would likely award more."

There's no telling how many careers go and have gone off the rails because of gendered toxicity in workplaces around the world. The emotional burden of men like Matt Lauer incurs lost opportunity, lost wealth creation, and lost creativity. Employers should think hard about how they want to repair damage of that scale and scope.