Sexual harassment in the work place can close your doors quickly.
So what happened? There were six different allegations:
- The rabbit ears incident: At a credit union sponsored Halloween party for the staff, Sarah came dressed in a rabbit costume that had big pointed rabbit ears. Tom approached her, touched the ears and said, “I just wanted to be able to say I touched your tips.” There were no witnesses, and Tom denied making the statement. He did acknowledge that he noticed her in the costume and told me all he said to her was, “I like your tips.” Sarah told her friend, Kristen, as well as her immediate supervisor, Bob, about the incident. These two individuals (witnesses) were quite convincing in their report of the incident. It was interesting and perhaps significant that Tom was alleged to have said the words, “I just wanted to be able to say I touched your tips.” I discovered that almost all of Tom’s inappropriate behavior revolved around locker room or street corner crass talk rather than overt actions. I believed the allegation had merit. The target, Sarah, had credibility, as did her friend and her supervisor. This behavior, coupled with other behaviors that I soon discovered, amounted to sexual harassment by hostile work environment.
- The cell phone camera incident: Continuing to cross the line, Tom took a picture of Sarah from the front, neck to waist. Kristen actually saw the picture being taken and expressed her disapproval. She demanded that he delete the picture. Tom told Kristen that he would delete the picture but would not show her that it was deleted from the camera phone. Then, he denied even taking any picture of Sarah’s breasts when I interviewed him. Both Sarah and Kristen asserted that Tom did take the picture and refused to delete it. Joan reported to me that Tom admitted to her that he did take the picture. This allegation is substantiated. The real mistake here was Tom’s refusal to delete the picture. It was possible that the picture was taken inadvertently. The situation presented an opportunity to simply apologize. Tom could have demonstrated sincere contrition, proved that the picture was deleted, and the incident could have been closed. Instead, the victim was left wondering what purpose this picture would serve, who would see it, etc. This behavior, coupled with other behavior, constituted sexual harassment by hostile work environment.
- Denied promotional opportunities: Sarah and Tom were discussing a promotional opportunity, the manager of product support position within the IT department. Tom told her that the position required overnight travel. She said she understood and had no problems with that requirement of the new job. He further advised Sarah that, during that overnight travel, she would have to share a hotel room and bed with him! She informed him in no uncertain terms that his suggestion was unacceptable and unwelcome. She told me that she told Tom that any part of him that touched her would be cut off and sent home in a box! She did not get the job.
A second opportunity arose for a position as the assistant product support manager in the IT department. Alan, the product support manager, recruited Sarah. He advocated for Sarah to get the position on three or more separate instances with his boss, Tom. Alan was very clear with me that Tom continuously refused to grant his request to hire Sarah. He said that Tom provided very lame excuses or reasons why Sarah could not be selected for the position. The final reason Tom provided for rejecting Sarah’s candidacy was that there might be a problem with Sarah’s compensation in the new position being higher than the compensation paid to her fiancée who also worked in the IT department. Tom denied the allegation indicating that Sarah did not get either position because she was not qualified for either one. Upon review of the qualifications for the first manager position, Sarah did not appear qualified. However, for the assistant classification, she appeared to be fully qualified. The first allegation, the assertion that the position required overnight travel and that Sarah would have to share a room and bed with Tom constituted quid pro quo sexual harassment. The second allegation, that her salary could not be allowed to exceed that of her fiancé’s compensation, constituted gender bias, which is also illegal.
On an additional note, a male was eventually hired for the assistant manager’s position. He lasted three months and left. With the position open again, Alan immediately went back to Tom and advocated for Sarah to be offered the job. He argued that Sarah was qualified, was his choice, and available. Tom advised him that she could apply again to which Tom argued that there was no need to restart the search process and incur the expense in money and time all over again. This argument was rejected. Alan told me that he did not wish to expose Sarah to the humiliation associated with going through the search process again. It was very understandable that Sarah would not wish to expose herself to the search process again either. This second incident served to humiliate Sarah. It also served to marginalize Alan and his judgment, as it had always been his choice to select Sarah. It sent a negative and chilling message throughout the organization as well — that management could make capricious and arbitrary decisions, no rational needed.
My recommendation was for the credit union to immediately offer the position to Sarah with apologies for the past mistakes and offer apologies to Alan for the treatment he had endured.
4.Unsubstantiated comments to Sarah: Tom made crude sexual comments to Sarah and reminded her that he, as the CIO, controlled the employment and promotional opportunities of her fiancé. He asserted that if she wanted to protect her fiancé, she could do so by being more “friendly.” Tom denied ever saying anything crude or inappropriate to Sarah and asserted that he never threatened her fiancé’s position or promotional opportunities. These statements were not made in front of witnesses. There was not enough evidence to substantiate these allegations, yet there was also no information to contradict them. The credibility of the parties was left as the deciding factor. Sarah’s credibility, in my opinion, was far superior to that of Tom’s. If true, this allegation represented or constituted sexual harassment of the worst kind: the acceptance of the marginalization and denigration of women simply because they are women.
- Substantiated racist and sexual comments about Sarah and women in general: On several occasions, Tom made sexually, racially insensitive and inappropriate statements about female staff or women in general. In my many interviews with him, Tom denied ever making any such comments. My investigation substantiated the allegations because several managers and line staff indicated direct personal experience with Tom when he made crude and inappropriate sexual and racial comments about female staff, including Sarah and women in general. There were smoke breaks on many occasions, and over a period of many months and years, when he made the comments. The incidents represented reprehensible role modeling and wholly unacceptable management practice. This behavior undermined the values of decency, professionalism and safety. They also undermined any other efforts the credit union might have been taking to become employee centered.
- Alleged overt actions: There was a statement made to me that Tom unsnapped the bra of a female staff person sometime in the recent past. Several women had knowledge about the incident, but no one would say that it happened to them, just that they had heard it. This allegation could not be substantiated. It is important to know that when an allegation like the one in this case is investigated, there will usually be many more related issues that will surface. Some will be able to be substantiated and some, like the bra allegation, will not. Either way, I promise you that they will be there.