Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

This complex issue isn't easy to solve or to deal with.  And in addressing it, we should keep in mind that people are innocent until proven guilty.  Pitchfork justice can backfire.

Sexual harassment is of course all the news today, with people coming forward with tales from decades past, and exacting justice - or at least revenge - for past transgressions.   And in many cases, it is justice long denied and justly deserved.  In other cases, it gets murky.   The standards of three decades ago are being viewed in this new enlightened era and found wanting.   The old days of "chasing your secretary around the desk" (which was considered a "funny" meme back then, before there were memes) is viewed today in horror.

And there are different levels of harassment, from sexual banter and dirty jokes, to propositioning, to sexual intimidation, to outright rape.  And while none are acceptable in the workplace, we should understand there is a big difference between Clarence Thomas telling an off-color joke and being brutally raped in the parking garage.

And sadly, I know women - and men - who have been victims of all of these types.   Even in today's more sensitive environment, it is still difficult if you have been sexually harassed.  While the law does protect you against discrimination of a number of sorts, often filing a harassment or discrimination claim is a career-ending proposition - as unfair as it seems.

Consider Cindy - an amalgamation of a number of people I know.  Cindy works in an office and is competent at her job.   She goes to work every day, does her job, and goes home to her husband.   Two doors down from her is Clarence.   Clarence is a bit of a misogynist and considers himself a "ladies man" and is always on the prowl.   He likes to tell off-color jokes - sometimes outright dirty jokes - and also engage in the sexual banter which was - and still is - common in many workplaces.

And let me just address that for a moment.  I've worked in many traditional all-male workplaces such as factories and the like, and sexual banter is quite common.   Boring, repetitive jobs tend to cause people to find outlets.   And sometimes this takes the form of insult humor (think: Don Rickles on steroids) or sexual banter of various sorts.

In an all-male environment on the factory floor, someone can say "blow me!" and no one is taking this seriously as a sexual invitation.   Rather, they view it as men blowing off steam.   But when women enter these traditional male enclaves (as has been the case in the last 30 years or so) people have to adjust their behavior.   And when they don't, friction results.   And perhaps that is one reason men have guarded traditionally male vocations in the past - as wrong as gender discrimination was and is.

Anyway, getting back to Cindy and Clarence, Clarence tends to tell off-color jokes, and he will lean on the door frame of Cindy's office with his coffee cup and bend her ear.   Worse that that, he makes sexually suggestive remarks.   While it might be OK to say, "That's a nice dress you are wearing!" it is not OK to say, "Boy that dress makes you look sexy!" or "It really shows your curves!" which is the sort of thing Clarence says.

And sadly, the banter escalates with Clarence.   Maybe he thinks that this dirty talk will intrigue Cindy or something, but whatever the reason, it is making Cindy increasingly uneasy.  She tries closing her office door (he opens it).  She tries telling Clarence she is behind on her work and can't chat - he ignores that.   Clarence stops her in the hall when she goes to the ladies room to tell more of his "stories".   Cindy is getting more and more uncomfortable.

So what can she do?   She can't put her finger on one single incident where Clarence has clearly crossed the line - it is a cumulative effect of all of his off-color remarks and inappropriate behavior.   And it seems to be getting worse as time goes on.   So she goes to her boss to complain.

Her boss is a busy guy - having to balance the department budget and deal with a host of problems.  And from his perspective, Cindy has just put another problem right in his lap.   In fact, from his point of view, Cindy is the problem.    Everything was going well today, until Cindy stepped into his office.  Not only that, Cindy has presented him with a difficult problem to solve - a he-said, she-said situation where he has no real "proof" of Clarence's transgressions, and even if Cindy is taken at her word, in the era of a decade or two ago, people would scratch their heads and say, "Dirty jokes, what's the big deal?"  After all, Clarence never laid a hand on her, right?

And in Cindy's line of work, finding qualified employees is difficult.   Clarence might not be the most productive employee, but he cranks out a lot of work and would be difficult to replace.   Also, if they fired Clarence, he likely would sue the company, as they had no concrete "proof" of any malfeasance on his part.

So her boss talks to some of Cindy's colleagues, and they admit that Clarence tells a few off-color jokes and makes some inappropriate comments, but hey, that's just banter, right?   No one else was present when Clarence made some of his propositions and innuendos.  Cindy's boss talks to Clarence directly, which gives away the game.  Now, the whole office knows about Cindy's complaint, and guess what?  Most people side with Clarence.   Cindy needs to get a sense of humor!   She needs to lighten up a bit!   You see how this can play out.

Cindy's boss basically does nothing, other than to have Cindy now labeled a pariah.   So Cindy goes to HR and files a formal complaint.   At this point, other people in the department have stopped talking to Cindy, who now feels isolated and alone.   The HR department arranges for to have Clarence transferred to another department in the company, figuring that would solve the problem if they could separate the two parties.

But of course it doesn't, and Cindy now has a new problem - she is alienated from her fellow co-workers who are afraid she will complain about them, next.   Cindy's boss arranges for her to be transferred to another department as well, and now Cindy is marked as a pariah.

And that in short is the conundrum facing women - and some men - if they are sexually harassed.  And this is just a minor case, compared to some others - where it is implied, or even outright said, that sexual favors are expected in return for promotions.   And in other cases, even outright rape.

Even I have been sexually harassed, after a fashion.  At one firm I worked at, my boss implied I might make partner someday if I would go out with his gay son.   I respectfully declined his generous offer, and within a year, I left the firm.   The funny thing was, of course, that from his perspective, he wasn't harassing or intimidating me, just suggesting a convenient arrangement.  And in addition to the fact his kid was batshit crazy, I was already nearly a decade into a relationship with Mark at that point.

So sexual harassment and intimidation can happen to anyone.  Although if Kevin Spacey wants to sexually harass me, he should feel free to do so.  Kevin, if you read this - give me a call!

OK, maybe that isn't funny.  Some young actor or stagehand at the Old Vic probably felt his job or career was on the line if he didn't play along with this creepy old American movie actor.   And no one should be placed in that situation, of course.

But the experience of Cindy illustrates the conundrum facing women in the workplace if they are harassed.   The outcome, in the past - and even today - was not really justice of any sort.   Many of the women who are coming forward with "Me Too" stories are doing so only at the twilight of their careers, or after they have already established themselves in the field.   These stories are years or decades old because if they had raised the issue a the time, their careers would have ended.

And like I said, even today this is a problem.   The situation with the Human Society of America is a case in point.   Even after several women came forward to complain about outright sexual intimidation (sex-for-a-promotion), the board of directors still refused to take action, until donors revolted and bad publicity doomed them.

The problem of course is, we still have something called due process in this country, and you can't fire someone based on allegations alone.   And if we posit - as some on the Left argue - that any complaint made by a woman should trump any defense made by a man - we would be setting up a system that would be ripe for just as much abuse.   And there have been, sadly, a few complaints of harassment and even rape that have turned out to be false.

Sexual harassment is really no different from racial discrimination or other forms of discrimination or abuse - or how whistleblowers are treated.   Despite all the laws that are suppose to protect the rights of the complainants, the net result, even today, is not that the complainant is lauded for their bravery and promoted, but likely forced out from their job in one way or another - which is what happened to Cindy.  She found that she was not welcome at her employer anymore, and moreover not many places elsewhere, as word got around she was a "complainer" - which marked her as unemployable.

And you can say that is unfair all day long - it is what happened to her.

Personally, I have tried to rely on being really good at my job and leaving places where I saw these sorts of shenanigans going on.  Usually, companies that tolerate this sort of nonsense end up failing, as they are spending more time on nonsense and promoting unqualified people and they lose sight of the reason they are working - to make a profit for the company.

And maybe that wasn't "fair" and I left behind opportunities as a result, but I never thought of life as "fair" to begin with.  I suppose I could have made a lot more money marrying my boss' son.  But that wasn't in the cards for me.

Others are not so fortunate as I am, of course, as they don't have job skills that can be easily moved from one place to another.  The Cindy's of the world are in a tight spot.   And there is no easy way out or easy answer, even in today's enlightened society.