Sexual harassment at wdr: more than #metoo

Steep hierarchies and great dependencies: An expert report attests to structural problems at WDR that encouraged abuse of power.

The director and the investigator: WDR boss Tom Buhrow and Monika Wulf-Mathies at the presentation of the report Photo: dpa

Former DGB chairwoman and EU commissioner Monika Wulf-Mathies has spent more than three months examining how Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) has dealt with indications of sexual harassment of female employees since the 1990s. Her report, which she presented Wednesday, makes it clear: The problems at ARD’s largest institution run deep.

For the director Tom Buhrow, who had commissioned the politician herself, it was bitter realizations. Until 2015, the complaints at WDR could have been pursued with "greater investigative zeal," the final report says. Even through the "Service Agreement for Protection against Sexual Harassment" adopted in 2015, the clarification remained "rather incomplete".

It was not until April 2018, after the public scandalization of the events surrounding a (now former) correspondent and later the then head of television drama Gebhard Henke, that the politician noted a "clear learning effect": external points of contact, packages of measures to prevent sexual harassment and discussion rounds had ensured an improvement. The establishment of an independent clearinghouse as a "hub for all information and swift action" and a new service agreement are now very important.

In the view of the trade unionist, however, the allegations that have come to light are only the tip of the iceberg: "It’s about more than #MeToo, the issues of abuse of power and discrimination have also played an important role in the talks."

At first, the investigator did not even realize what she had gotten herself into, because it was only in the course of her investigations that she came across structural problems at the Cologne station that encouraged many abuses. To date, victims have either not contacted WDR directly or have done so anonymously. The reasons: lack of trust and fear for their careers.

The breeding ground for abuse of power

Wulf-Mathies has identified deficits above all in the personnel framework. A strong power imbalance exists not only between management levels and employees, but also between employees and freelancers. This creates dependencies and is a breeding ground for abuse of power. At the same time, there is a lack of an appreciative and respectful working atmosphere. "In my view, it is necessary for the director to make improving the working climate a top priority. That means first of all devoting intensive and targeted efforts to strengthening internal communications."

Wulf-Mathies spoke of "silo structures" that limit permeability and transparency at WDR. Personnel responsibility is too undervalued, internal communication is too selective, and the management courses offered are too noncommittal.

In general, only professional, but not social competence, is taken into account in the selection of managers. For Buhrow, the auditor had directly put together a whole package of tasks to implement a sustainable and necessary cultural change. At the top of the list: practicing a feedback culture and conducting an employee survey.

Buhrow apologizes

"I will take the recommendations very seriously. The entire catalog of measures will not disappear in a drawer," promised the WDR boss, who once again apologized on behalf of the station to all those affected.

He said that it had been clear to the director from the very beginning that the process of coming to terms with the situation would also involve power structures. "We are in the process of breaking down structures through new ways of working, which also leads to these silos, some of which have formed over decades, breaking down." That, he said, is precisely the "flip side" of high social reliability: with a termination rate of less than one percent, there is hardly any replacement. Buhrow now expects "courage" from his executives at all levels to improve conditions.

At any rate, Wulf-Mathies says, WDR has already shown courage with its willingness to allow outsiders to review structural processes. For Buhrow, appointing an independent auditor was the right move: "I don’t regret that we’re going down this path, and it also sets us apart from others that we’re going down this path publicly."