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You may have seen the news recently about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, following an investigation that concluded that he sexually harassed 11 women from 2013 to 2020. Investigators interviewed 179 people and ultimately found a pattern of unwanted touching and sexually suggestive and inappropriate comments towards staff, State employees and members of the public. The Executive Chamber’s1 response to concerns and complaints was found to be inadequate and to have contributed to the conditions that allowed Cuomo’s conduct to persist. Notably, after one woman came forward with her concerns, the Executive Chamber leaked confidential records to the press and circulated a malicious letter about her (initially drafted by Cuomo) to discredit her. The Executive Chamber was found to have engaged in reprisal.2
As I read the Cuomo investigation report, I found myself asking, how did this conduct go on for so long, with so many witnesses, right in the public eye in the midst of the #MeToo movement? Ironically, during this time, Cuomo even signed legislation and pressed for State policy that aimed to provide greater sexual harassment protections.3
I looked to the complainant and witness accounts, which described a “twilight zone” where Cuomo’s behaviour towards women was normalized and enabled by those in the Executive Chamber. He was described as extremely powerful and vindictive, and people were simply afraid of him. This culture of fear and intimidation, combined with sexual advances, created an environment where one complainant suggested that Cuomo knew what he was doing and knew that he could get away with it.
It’s more likely that a respondent will be protected by leaders of an organization if they’re seen as valuable — a public figure, celebrity, or a high performer in an executive position – providing an opportunity for cases of sexual harassment to escalate. As seen in the Cuomo investigation, those in this position have far reaching tentacles, helping them gain control and protection, and are well positioned to make power plays against complainants and witnesses.
In today’s social climate, what should employers do to prevent and manage these situations? How can they spot these issues earlier, encourage employees to speak up and meaningfully protect them once they do — regardless of the respondent’s position?
I’ve had organizations tell me that they’d prefer to wait for “hard evidence” before investigating and addressing sexual harassment. Instead of turning a blind eye, be live to power dynamics and patterns within your workplace. Consider speaking with employees directly, implementing whistleblowing programs, and/or conducting a workplace assessment to get a broader sense of the workplace culture.
In cases where the respondent is a public figure or highly regarded within the company, an internal reviewer, investigator, or workplace assessor may face pressure internally. Consider an external reporting mechanism, along with external investigators to conduct workplace assessments and investigations.
Investigations can take months, and a respondent engaging in sexual harassment who is also in a position of power can wreak a lot of havoc during that time. Consider the power dynamic and the potential for reprisal and/or harm when faced with serious complaints of sexual harassment. Determine whether interim changes to the reporting structure or working arrangements are reasonable and necessary, or even whether to put a respondent on a paid leave. This should not be used as a punitive measure but rather as a “pause” to the workplace dynamic, pending the results of the investigation.
These measures will encourage complainants and witnesses to speak up and to provide best evidence, once threats of reprisal and potential safety concerns are seen to be sufficiently curbed.
Follow your own policies
The Cuomo investigation found that despite a “robust” State policy, internal protocols weren’t followed. Leaders within the Executive Chamber attempted their own makeshift manoeuvres, providing relief to some women, but leaving others exposed.
In Canada, it’s required that organizations have a policy that speaks to sexual harassment in the workplace. However, organizations still need to raise awareness of those policies through training and education and ensure that leaders commit to the policy to avoid legal repercussions. The policy should be clear about how to make a complaint, who is responsible for investigating, and how to manage complaints involving employees at high levels within the company.
Manage reputational risk
Investigations are confidential processes, and rumours and negative publicity can add fuel to the fire before findings are made. Although social media was key in bringing awareness to the #MeToo movement, it can also work against you and exacerbate an already sensitive situation, especially when dealing with high profile parties. Companies should act quickly, reiterate the principles of confidentiality to those involved, and anonymize when possible.
We can’t eradicate sexual harassment or prevent leaders from turning a blind eye. But employers have an obligation to maintain a workplace free from sexual harassment and it starts with changing the culture and creating a mechanism where employees can make complaints without fear from reprisal. There is still work to be done; but given that Cuomo — someone operating at the highest level in society — was investigated and held accountable, this is progress in itself.
1 The Executive Chamber is comprised of the Secretary to the Governor, Chief of Staff, Deputies, Chairman, Counsel, and various Directors.
2 “Report of Investigation Into Allegations of Sexual Harassment By Governor Andrew M. Cuomo,” State of New York, Office of the Attorney General Letitia James, August 3, 2021, view report
3 Steck, Em, Kaczynski, Andrew, and Myers, Drew,“Before NY AG report, Andrew Cuomo long claimed to be a champion against sexual harassment and attacked GOP politicians for staying silent,” CNN, August 4, 2021, view report
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