The Diminishing of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In July I took a job at a major New York City university. I was to be one of three career coaches for the best of the school’s computer science majors. Given my passion for both counseling and education, I was looking forward to a new venture.

After only being on the job for a few weeks, I was called into a meeting with my supervisor, the program director, and his supervisor, the program’s executive director. Despite what was about to take place, I believe both are good people. The program director is clearly well-educated, has a passion for teaching, and is caring. As for the executive director, one story will suffice:

It became clear early on that the program, which is government funded, was running short of funds. There was no money for telephones; we had to use our cells for which there would be no reimbursement. And, despite the long hours, it was repeatedly made clear that there would be no overtime pay. In fact, the program director lamented that there were difficulties in paying rent to Wework, the shared office space where our office was located. More significantly, money was not available to pay salaries and I don’t know what else. The executive director, who also runs, I believe, two other programs, according to the program director, transferred funds from those programs to meet the immediate needs of our program. Having been a fundraiser in a previous life, responsible for the administration of grants, I know how difficult that can be. If you do not get permission you could find yourself in legal jeopardy. So kudos to him for the effort and to his other funders/boards for agreeing to the transfer(s).

But let’s get back to this meeting…

I was alone with the program and executive directors. I had no idea what the meeting was about. The program director, who was clearly very uncomfortable, finally told me that I had been accused of sexual harassment by one or more of my colleagues. He refused to tell me who my accusers were. He also refused to tell me what I had actually done. All he would say was that I had made inappropriate statements and had inappropriately touched at least one of them. The only thing he said categorically was that I had not groped anyone. He also said, in response to a direct question from me, that no student had filed a complaint against me. He did not want to go into details because he wanted it to be an “informal” process.

Naturally, I denied the charges. I said the only time I had touched a colleague was when we first met and shook hands. As for inappropriate statements, since he would not provide any details I could only give a blanket denial. He then told me that one of my accusers had said that I had said that the mandatory online sexual harassment course that all employees had to take was “silly.” That was easy to dismiss as I had not taken it yet. He said that he had instructed me to take it right away. I told him I did not recall that and that I had planned to take it that week. I also told him that according to the regulations new hires had 45 days to take the test. In any event, I told him I would take it that evening, which I did.

The course was not “silly.” If anything it was foolish and dangerous. First, it included a game. If you answered 15 questions correctly you would win a “badge.” So much for the university taking the subject matter seriously! But that was not the real problem:

The course included a number of skits. If memory serves, two dealt with homosexuality, one with religion, one with marriage, and one with race. All fine and good. But this was a sexual harassment course for a university. There was no mention made of students. What should an employee do if he or she wants to date a student? What happens if a student asks an employee out? No guidance.

(To digress for a moment, there was a second mandatory course on what to do in the case of an active shooter. Again, all fine and good. But this is New York City. This is Manhattan. No mention of what to do if a suspicious envelope or package is found. No mention of what to do if a bomb goes off in the building or in the vicinity. This is why some things, such as these two courses, should not be purchased off the shelf!)

I had taught a class on HR focusing in no small part on harassment. In fact, the first class at the school where I had taught, was devoted to reading HR policies to the students so that they would understand their protections and the protections given to staff. At that school students came first; at the university, they did not come at all!

But I know what harassment is not just from reading, writing and teaching about it. I know it as a former director. The worst case I ever had to deal with professionally was when a woman, a victim of domestic violence, was being harassed by her former boyfriend. Some staff were scared. They wanted her fired. I refused. (This was in New Jersey. I did not know if victims of domestic violence were a protected class. I did not care. I did what I felt was right. For the record, in New York State they are protected.) By the way, there was no mention in the course of victims of domestic violence being a protected class! I guess to “foolish and dangerous” I should add “disgraceful.”

The outcome of the meeting was, in accordance with Federal law – so the program director said – that, until further notice, I was not to be in the office except to drop off or pick up my belongings or for staff meetings. That was not a problem. I preferred to sit in the “kitchen” on our floor which was where I met with students. But I had this charge of harassment hanging over my head. Again, I did not know who my accusers were or the specifics of what I had done.

A week later we had another meeting. I was informed that I had done the following:

1) When I was seated at my desk with my back to her, a female colleague said to me, “It’s so nice when people buy you something that actually fits.” I turned around to see what she was talking about. She had put on a sweatshirt/hoody. Wework does not skimp on air conditioning. It was cold in our office. I told her to hold on for a second, reached over and removed some lint from her shoulder and, when I felt the material with my finger tips while removing the lint, I said something like, “That’s warm material.” Inappropriate touching and inappropriate language.

2) One Monday morning I asked the same colleague how her weekend had been. She said she had either gone to the beach or hiking. I don’t remember. My comment was, “You got a good,” maybe I said, “nice,” “tan.” Inappropriate language.

3) I had had a cold and was still dealing with a cough. During a meeting with a student, in the aforementioned kitchen, I started to cough. I had forgotten my cough drops in my desk. I excused myself, went to the office and, thinking I was insulting myself, said to my two colleagues something like, “You are not going to make a good Jewish mother and a good Italian/Puerto Rican mother if you don’t tell your son to take his cough drops with him!” Inappropriate language.

When this was told to me I took a sip of water. I started to cough and took another sip. Then I excused myself and went to the men’s room which, thankfully, was close at hand. I vomited.

On my return, I was livid. I said to the executive and program directors, “You put me through a week of hell for this?” I asked one if he wanted to go in front of the television cameras to defend what they had done to me. To the other, I asked if he wanted to defend this in court. I told them in no uncertain terms that I considered myself the victim. Neither looked me in the eyes preferring to stare at their hands instead of responding. I made it clear that none of these instances would ever pass the “reasonable person” standard.

I then said I wanted to go down and talk to my accusers. We did. Amongst other things, I told them that if they had a problem with me they should tell me about it directly. I also told them that I had taught sexual harassment and had dealt with it. I gave two examples: statutory rape and the victim of domestic violence issue which I referenced earlier.

As noted, the program director had told me that he wanted to keep everything informal. He said that he had consulted with HR and his proposal was that I would be on probation for about three weeks, until September 6 when funding for the program, if not renewed, would end. Additionally, until the 6th I would not be permitted in the office except as previously noted. I could have cared less. There was no way I was going to be alone with either one of my accusers. This was, to my mind, a face saving move for the directors and I wanted to be prudent.

In any event, one of my accusers announced that she was leaving. In a period of about two months, half of the career coaches quit the program and I was fired. That’s a 75% turnover rate. ‘Nuff said.

I think it was the next day, the program director told me he was very upset with what I had said to the staff. He did not like the fact that I had given actual examples of the types of harassment I had dealt with in previous jobs. He said it made them feel uncomfortable. (I felt like saying, “The real world will do that,” but didn’t!) My response was that not giving examples would have made my comments meaningless, just words floating in the ether.

The story does not end here. I was not fired for harassment. As you will read in the next installment of this saga, I was fired for, among other things, possibly offending atheists. (You read that correctly. I have it in writing. You will see it!) In the final installment, I will consider the irony of a career counselor being fired.

The important point, for present purposes, is that when frivolous harassment charges are made it diminishes true violations. When an HR department does not explain to the accusers about the “reasonable person” standard, it is troubling. When they do not give proper guidance to directors it is shameful. And let’s not forget, the accused have rights too! Here we have two young women, in their mid-twenties (I assume), who have no idea of what harassment really is and, just as importantly, have no idea how to interact with colleagues of a different generation and possibly also from a different culture. This could have been a learning experience, for them and the directors! Instead, it destroyed a team and perhaps will lead to the end of a program designed to benefit gifted students.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that!

Bruce is a recognized authority on job search and career issues, having been quoted in over 700 articles, appearing in some 500 publications, across the United States and in more than 30 foreign countries. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 350,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention, including television appearances on Fox Business Network and Headline News (CNN).  Visit his website to learn about all of his services, view his most recent videos, and to take advantage of his free Library. Follow him on Twitter at @HurwitzStaffing.

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