Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Even Darker Side of Sexual Harassment

It was 1993. I returned from maternity leave to my big bank employer and walked into a firestorm. The bank was facing the single biggest case of gender discrimination in this country until the David Jones saga would eclipse it almost 20 years later. The Executive finally realised we needed to change the culture of the bank. As a learning and development specialist, I put my hand up to help. I hung out with clever people from Freehills, the bank's lawyers, and attended courses on Anti-Discrimination Law. I studied unfair dismissals legislation which had only just been introduced at federal level and no-one knew how the Commission would apply it. And I devoured landmark cases as determinations were handed down. Anyone from back then would remember the infamous "flight attendant's case".

One landmark case in the Federal Human Rights Commission would haunt me forever. Faatupunati vs. Balaskas; a case so old, I can’t find a link to it. But it represented one of the most horrific abuses of power I could recall that fell short of rape.

A supervisor in a manufacturing company was found to have pressured an immigrant single mother, a casual worker, to meet him at the local motel and have sex with him or be taken off the work roster. Mercifully, someone at work found out. Ms Faatupunati got an interpreter and some advice. While the organisation Balaskas worked for could not find reliable evidence of any wrongdoing when they investigated, it appears the Commission found it easily enough. Of significance was the still rare view formed by the Commissioner that the company could not reasonably have foreseen, much less encouraged such behaviour and would not be held vicariously liable. The supervisor himself was fined around $63,000, surely a pittance for the magnitude of his reported abuse of trust and power.

How might we compare and contrast this case with more contemporary #MeToo cases of sexual harassment?

Not all cases of sexual harassment are typified by the crass "grope and hope" methodology though some are and these would probably constitute sexual assault, not only sexual harassment. Most cases of sexual harassment fall short of criminality. The stereotypical harasser drinks too much at functions, losing inhibition and judgment. But in so many cases, the oft-unreported cases, the really insidious, manipulative characters target specific individuals - not necessarily because they’re ‘attractive’, but because they’re single (with no-one at home to complain to), junior and/or new to the business or the industry. The targets of these devious harassers are often vulnerable. They’re longing for a break and/or short of money. The harasser offers them a break, a job, a favour, an introduction, maybe even special attention; attention which might be genuinely appreciated, at least for a while. Accusations against Don Hazen of AlterNet exactly fit this profile. Some targets may feel uncomfortable but may rationalise that it would be ungracious to rebuff the senior partner in their silent power play. They may find the initial attention or care flattering or endearing. They might be told, yes, by women and even by family members that there is something sadly inevitable about such behaviour; that it's "rife" in their industry, that they shouldn't do anything to jeopardise their jobs because good jobs are so hard to come by. And in the worst, most subversive and psychologically abusive cases, targets may protest and be told they've misread the situation, that they risk victimisation and isolation for making waves or that they must surely have done something to encourage unwelcome attention. Let's ponder that. How does one encourage uninvited attention that by definition must be unwelcome? Is that not the blackest con of all?

I've spoken with many women and men since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have gathered momentum and the common but sometimes glib objection/suspicion is why the victims (almost exclusively women) often take so long to speak up?

In some cases they didn't even know the treatment they received and the way it made them feel was sexual harassment, particularly in environments where sexualised or gender-based behaviour was normalised. In some situations, even if they realised they had been groomed as a forerunner to actual harassment, they may have had no confidence a complaint would do any good and in many cases had every reason to believe complaining would go against them. And it is this fear of complaining and the lack of trust and confidence employees may have in being heard and abuses acted upon that probably serves to silence them (for a time or forever). Why do we hear too often about these allegations as people are walking out the door?

But for actual employers and the media, the sexualised nature of the conduct often takes centre-stage and eclipses reflection and discussion on the contextual or systemic factors that enable such behaviour to occur and often to continue. Many manipulative, wilfully targeting perpetrators who are prepared to exploit a sexist employer/employee imbalance of power are serial harassers.

While Casual Friday, fresh fruit, bean bags and billiard tables might all be well received, our biggest obligation to our people is to make them feel safe to speak up and speak out, no matter where they sit on the org chart. The worst harassers aren’t like the rest of us, that is, good people behaving badly. They are predators.

Whilst always assuring natural justice and resisting the overreaction, companies must find the courage to dismiss perpetrators of serious harassment. This immediately cuts risk and recalibrates culture. It is also worth noting that trial by media should not become the method by which justice is served. Again, trust and confidence in the willingness of an organisation's leadership to listen and investigate no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient, is the best safeguard against targets and victims taking their grievances and their trauma to be tried in the court of public opinion with the Twitter-verse as their testimony.

A disturbing short film that depicts this subversive dynamic stars David Schwimmer (yes, from Friends) and can be found here.

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