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Approaching Sexual Harassment as a Manager.

14 October 2015

As I enter the world of management in a formal way, I find myself thinking about things I would really rather not have to confront. In the science world over the last week, there’s been another of the all-too-common discoveries that a big name and prominent scientist was a serial sexual harasser. He’s been publicly admonished, and given a “zero-tolerance” policy for future crimes. But no formal censure. I won’t comment directly on that case, because I haven’t read about the details. But I’d like to comment a bit on the culture.

I asked, over on twitter, why there seem to be so many “open secrets” about who is a predator, and yet so few formal investigations. The primary reason I’ve been given in response, and it coincides with my own suppositions, is that the general rule is: the accused suffers at most a verbal warning, while the victim routinely has her career destroyed*. Often there is explicit retribution. Even if there is not, other institutions often decide not to hire a “troublemaker”. As if it were the victim who caused the trouble, and not the perpetrator.

I believe firmly in the assumption of “innocent until proven guilty” and that every accused person, regardless of the accusation, is entitled to a vigorous defense, and to confront their accuser. These are bedrock principles of any free society. The fact that an accusation is sexual in nature does not relieve the accused of these rights.

However, fanatical devotion to these rights leads far too many to abuse victims in attempts to silence, discourage, and discredit them. And this is done in a spectacularly egregious fashion with regard to sexual offenses in the workplace. We build systems, like Title IX (a well-intentioned disaster), that silence and bewilder victims in bureaucratic labyrinths designed to protect institutions at the expense of individuals.

I admit freely that I don’t know how to resolve the tension between these two poles. Justice is not only the righting of wrongs, but the assurance that a process is fair. It needs to be fair to both accused and victim. I don’t know what the right balancing of these issues looks like. But I know that where we are now, with respect to institutional investigations of sexually predatory behavior, seems unfairly tilted in favor of protecting institutions themselves, which generally believe that their interests are best served by pretending that “that doesn’t happen here”.

When the investigating party has a vested interest in finding that no wrong occurred, it is no wonder that victims are discredited and disavowed. And that leads me to what I believe my own position must be, as a manager**.

I, personally, have to start by believing the victim. The barriers against reporting sexual harassment can be so severe that it would be madness to file a false complaint. I say that knowing that false complaints exist. But they are vanishingly rare. And the existence of such things does not bear relevance on any case that’s in front of me. After all, I know people have been framed for murder. But I don’t automatically assume that every accused murderer is probably being framed. It’s absurdly uncommon.

That means being an advocate for them, and standing by them as they negotiate a difficult and bureaucratic process. That means supporting them and calling out any retaliatory behavior against them. That means coming forward with any appropriate evidence which I might possess.

It does not mean retaliating against the accused. It does not necessarily mean agreeing with the victim about what the perpetrator’s punishment should be. It does not mean substituting my own judgement or insight for anyone else’s.

We have a culture where institutions are rewarded for protecting powerful men who have decided to use their power and position to exploit women. We need the culture to change. My role as a manager must include, as a bedrock principle of free and equal society, that institutions be rewarded for fostering an environment where predation is not tolerated and all employees can work safe, equal, and respected.

I recognize I have a small role. But I think it’s crucial that the people with small roles unite behind the idea that protecting individuals is more important than protecting institutional silence.


*For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume sexual predators are male and victims are female. This is not always the case, but it is the vastly most common case, and I’m not going to torture my pronouns to account for other, far rarer situations. They happen. They are also unacceptable. But talking about the issue from a male-perpetrator, female-victim perspective applies to the whole issue without loss of generality.

**For the record: I know of no complaints with how my own institution, MECMC, handles such issues. We have a strong policy, which everyone is trained in. We have an institutional culture against retaliation. I’m proud to work here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Aimee permalink
    14 October 2015 12:07

    Generally speaking, organizations as large as yours have excellent written policy and procedures on the matter. I think that usually the problems victims contend with come not from the absence of a just policy, but from various individuals willingness to undermine that policy in favor of the institution/the accused. As in so many other contentious issues, enforcement is the problem. I’m fairly sure that the steps you describe – initially assuming the complaint to be true (if we didn’t do this, nothing would ever get investigated), etc, are in the policy. Simply “going by the book” is probably enough to ensure fairness, but also probably quite hard to do in practice.

  2. Syd permalink
    25 October 2015 08:33

    I have been witness to what I consider to be sexual harassment by upper management. Fortunately, the policies are much more strict now. I am glad for that. Sadly, I also know of a situation in which a form of black mail was used when making a complaint. That to me is not acceptable.

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