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Behind Closed Doors: 4 Ugly Truths About Workplace Sex Abuse

Behind Closed Doors: 4 Ugly Truths About Workplace Sex Abuse

“I don’t believe her. Why would a man in his position be so stupid and risk his career and reputation?” she said. “Plus, look at all the women who have come forward to support him.”

I heard this comment from a female colleague regarding former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson’s recent allegations against Roger Ailes, Fox News CEO. Carlson recently brought a wrongful termination suit against Ailes after her contract as the host of Fox’s The Real Story was not renewed. She is alleging sexual harassment, saying that Ailes made comments about her physical appearance and once told her that they should have slept together long ago.

I have no idea which one of them is telling the truth. You don’t either. But plenty of people have come to quick, firm opinions on the matter. And I’m particularly surprised at the number of women who have decided they don’t believe Ms. Carlson because they’ve heard so many other women (who currently work for Mr. Ailes) expressing support for him and adamant disbelief regarding the allegations. If he didn’t harass THOSE women, their thinking goes, he probably didn’t harass Gretchen, right?

Update: Ailes was just dismissed from Fox News following an internal investigation. He takes with him a $60 Million severance package. Previously supportive female hosts on Fox News have gone silent.

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Before I go any further let me acknowledge that as a man writing about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, my perspective and personal experience is inherently limited. And giving advice that may be politically incorrect or uncomfortable is going to strike some as inappropriate, maybe even offensive. Over the years I’ve had many conversations with women about the sexual pressures and abuses they face at work. And as much as possible, I’m going to try to reflect their experiences and perspectives rather than my own.

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While it is certainly true that women have the ability to commit sexual abuse in the workplace, the reality is that men are far, far more likely to be the perpetrators. And women with little power are almost always the victims. So that is the point of view I’m taking here.

With all that said, here are a few hard truths about sexual misbehavior in the modern workplace.

1. Sexual Harassment training has helped… and hurt.

Every year, millions of employees are required to complete annual training focused on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Huge amounts of money, time and resources are committed to this yearly effort, and this has been happening for decades. So by now we should have finally stamped out sexual abuse at work, right? Or at least diminished it significantly? Perhaps.

But one perverse consequence of all this training is that sexual abuse perpetrators have also been trained – and they’ve become MUCH better at covering their tracks.

Sure there are still stupid guys sending inappropriate texts and pictures, and HR loves to bring the hammer down on them. But the smart ones, the real sexual sociopaths, have become much more subtle and clever.

“It took me awhile to recognize the pattern,” Linda said to me. “Whenever I worked late at the office, he was there. He owned the company, so I assumed he always worked late. But I later realized it was only those nights when I was working late, alone.” Linda went on to describe how she had been “groomed” to become comfortable with him, and ultimately pressured into a sexual relationship. “He was very careful, and no one in the company had a clue. The weirdest thing is that at a certain point I decided I needed evidence of our ‘relationship’ if you can call it that. And it’s almost like he instinctively knew, because that’s when it ended.” She was grateful that the sexual pressure ended, and didn’t perceive any negative impact on her career. “But to this day I wonder if he simply moved on to a fresher target, and I’m sure if I had tried to make a big thing of it, my career would have suffered.”

The important thing to understand is that in today’s world the (mostly male) perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse are clever. They plan. They strategize. They create “cover” relationships with other women at work and ensure that those women perceive them as straight arrows who NEVER say or do anything inappropriate. As crazy and evil as it seems, they get a kick out of the game.

“Always have plausible deniability,” a call center director said to me a few months ago as he described a series of office trysts with underlings. “If there’s ever heat, make sure it comes down to he-said, she-said.” He’d had a few drinks and I thought the alcohol had caused him to let his guard down. Until he held up his glass of whisky and wagged a finger at me. “Even this conversation, it’s just you and me. No trail, no evidence. nothing to come back and haunt me.” Needless to say, we haven’t gone out for drinks again. But the conversation haunts me.

It is also true that massive sexual harassment training has made some people over-sensitive to the issue, and they run to HR the moment they feel offended by a comment or occurrence. “Apparently something about the way I was looking at her made her uncomfortable. She went to our female boss to complain that I was ‘leering’ at her,” a sales manager said to me. “The boss called me into her office and told me to cut it out – I was confused and surprised, and trying to deny it just made me look worse.” Feeling that his reputation had been permanently and unfairly damaged, he eventually moved on to another employer.

So massive sexual harassment sensitivity training has helped, but is hasn’t changed human nature.

2. “Putting up with it” is a career choice many women still make.

While writing this article I reached out to a number of female colleagues with whom I have worked over the years and virtually every one of them shared at least one example of “putting up with it” for the sake of their career. These are strong, professional women and I was frankly surprised. one of them was very open about the compromise she made with her own values.

“I could have gone to HR and no doubt it would have hurt his career at that company. But it also would have hurt mine.” she said. “I know a lot of people will judge me for this, but I just told him to stop it, I made it clear that nothing was EVER going to happen between us. I was firm, but not harsh or strident or shaming. Because I needed to have a good working relationship with him.”

While I would never want my wife or daughter to make such a compromise, I also don’t want to pass judgement over those women who do.

“I just look at it as part of the cost of doing business in my industry. My clients are mostly men, they ask me out for drinks, to ‘talk business’ but it often leads to uncomfortable moments,” a female sales rep said to me. “I have to find ways to say ‘no’ without bruising their egos too much. Otherwise I have no shot at their business.”

It is a mistake to assume that the only women who “put up with it” are those who lack confidence, or who are desperate to keep their jobs. I worked with a female VP of Sales who projected the epitome of confidence and power. Her comments were a big eye opener for me.

“I had big career ambitions, and I wasn’t going to let any man’s bad behavior get in the way,” she said. Sometimes that meant pushing back hard, sometimes it meant talking like ‘one of the boys’ and sometimes it meant just ignoring or putting up with it. I know that’s not politically correct to say – but it’s what got me here.”

3. Going to HR immediately may NOT be your wisest move.

I’m afraid this may upset some of my friends in HR but I’ve heard too many stories from people (again, mostly women) who did the “right” thing and it ended up hurting their career.

Understand that the Human Resources department exists to serve the interests of the business. They are not there to be your personal advocate or counselor. So when someone lodges a formal complaint, what HR is looking for is specific, verifiable evidence. He-said, she-said accusations will certainly be acted upon, to some degree, but HR is going to protect the rights of both employees (as they should) AND MOSTLY protect the interests of the business.

The folks in HR do not have an obligation to protect your privacy. In fact if you lodge a complaint against another employee, HR has a primary obligation to address the complaint and protect the business, not to protect your identity.

In smaller businesses or those with a single owner (or other especially powerful individual employees) the people in HR often understand that in order to keep their own jobs they have to keep THAT person happy. The folks in HR have their own career pressures.

If you are going to take the step of lodging a formal complaint regarding unwanted sexual comments or actions, first seek out your own legal representation. You need to have counsel from someone who is solely focused on your interests, and has experience in this area of the law. This person can give you fact-based advice regarding when and how to contact HR with the allegation.

4. Don’t expect automatic support from other women.

If harassment occurs, be very careful about whom you decide to discuss it with at work. In the modern workplace, the days of female solidarity are over. Some women won’t believe you. Some may believe you but are more concerned with their own careers. Some may view this as an opportunity to push themselves up while pushing you down.

“My boss came on to me during a business trip, and I made the mistake of telling another woman at work about the situation. I trusted her and asked her to keep it between us until I had decided what to do,” a marketing manager said to me. “Well, she told someone. And THAT person went to my boss, saying that I was ‘spreading rumors’ and needless to say, the whole situation blew up on me.”

In the days following Gretchen Carlson’s allegations against Roger Ailes, a long list of Fox News female hosts, producers and others came forward to express their support for Mr. Ailes. None of them called Gretchen a liar exactly, but they made it clear who they were supporting. Obviously the fact that Mr. Aisles was their boss had to be a factor in their decision to come forward.

Only one prominent female host (Megyn Kelly) did not come forward with public statements of support. She hosts the #1 show on Fox News and clearly does not feel the same career pressure as others.But it turns out, if recent news reports are to be believed, that she told the internal Fox news investigators that she had in fact experienced unwanted advances from Mr. Ailes earlier in her career. Apparently she had “put up with it” in those early years of her career.

Which seemed to work out well for her.

Here is a recent radio interview focused on the same topic:


This is a complex and difficult topic, and I’m only certain of one thing: Every situation is unique, and every woman has to make decisions and choices based upon her own values and priorities. I’d love to hear your perspective on this.

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This LinkedIn post is not an excerpt, but my new book “Workplace Poker” includes career advice with a dash of smirky, sassy humor. Is it is available everywhere books are sold. You can view a brief video of reader comments by clicking on the link below.

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“Humor is just another defense against the universe.” – Mel Brooks

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