Sexual Harassment

There once was a young woman who published a book of essays about her life, including her work as a mid-level aide to a politician. Although her book wasn’t primarily about her work there, it did include instances of what many would term sexual harassment by her office’s chief of staff.  When asked if she wanted to lodge a complaint of sexual harassment against her boss, she declined. She was subsequently fired for “using her position for personal gain.” Her boss’s actions were not found to be sexual harassment, but “bad judgment.”

What’s wrong with this (true) story? Was the aide’s firing unwarranted or unfair? Was her boss guilty of sexual harassment? Was there a cover-up? Is this a case of the victim being victimized? Should she have filed a complaint?

The part that bothers me the most is that the young woman, Kathleen Rooney,  refused to file a complaint. It’s not clear whether or not she encouraged her boss’s behavior. But even if she did, shouldn’t he have known better than to “place his hand at the base of her neck, or flick her earring, or twist a strand of her hair”? Even if she welcomed his attention, she still writes that “he ran the office…on the ragged edge of decency.”

Sexual harassment is defined as “when one employee makes continued, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, to another employee, against his or her wishes.” If the boss’s actions were welcomed, then it would seem that she wouldn’t have a basis for a complaint. But does that mean that the boss’s behavior was innocent?

I don’t think so. He should have checked his behavior, even if she was flirting with him. That’s like saying that a man is not guilty of rape if the victim was “acting sexy.” Those who are in power should have it drilled into them that it is their responsibility to avoid any actions, words or attitudes that have sexual undertones when dealing with their staff. In fact, that should be drilled into every employee, from the top to the bottom, male or female.

And does it have to be the person who was targeted by the behavior to file the complaint? Not necessarily. If other employees feel that the harassment created a hostile work environment, then they should also be able to file a complaint.  The story doesn’t tell us what the other employees said, only what the verdict was. They may very well have complained as well, but their complaints were not accepted as evidence of “sexual harassment.”

That could be because the investigators were reluctant to brand the boss with the charge of sexual harassment, which would look much worse in his file than “bad judgment.” In my opinion, that does constitute a cover-up. It’s the age-old story of making excuses for men when they cross the boundaries of decency. “He was just being friendly. His actions were misinterpretated. The women were too sensitive. They didn’t tell him they didn’t like it.”

But there’s another dimension to the story and that is that Rooney’s own behavior may have hurt the cause of women who are sexually harassed. She apparently did not tell her boss that his attention was unwelcome. She did not complain to his superiors. And when given the chance, she refused to file a complaint.

This is like the rape victim who refuses to bring charges against the rapist. While I can sympathize with the victim–who wants to go through legal proceedings, especially given the grilling that the victim is sometimes put through?–I think it is irresponsible to just let it go. The perpetrator will only continue his behavior, whether it’s rape or sexual harassment, if someone doesn’t go through the legal process of putting him on notice that his behavior is not only unacceptable, but also illegal.

For more information about sexual harassment, what it is and how to deal with it, go here and here.