By Elliot H. Clark
Two months ago, I wrote a column about the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I blamed everyone in our culture who turned a blind eye to the problem and organizations who had “special rules for special people.” This is and has always been the problem. To draw a quote from the “Orwellian” nightmare in George Orwell’s parable Animal Farm, “All pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others.” Think about that quote as you read this.
As anyone who is reading this who has ever investigated a sexual harassment claim can tell you, it is more about power than it is about sex. Harvey Weinstein could have found thousands of starlets in Hollywood who might have been willing to trade sex for favoritism. As we are finding out now, he was far more interested in pressuring the ones who said “no.” There is no place filled with people more interested in testing, expanding or exercising their power than the U.S. Congress, and we should all be disgusted by what we are learning.
The good news about the current wave of newsworthy articles about prominent abusers being outed is that the culture of business and society may have reached a tipping point. We need to be careful, however, to recognize that an allegation is not a conviction and not automatically accepting the victim statement is not disrespectful, it is part of the investigatory process. The news media can convict the accused but as HR, we need to be more circumspect. However, it appears in the case of Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mark Halpern, and others that the investigation revealed enough information to cost them their jobs. Think of the difference in the approach last year to the original allegations against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. Much progress has been made in vetting and responding.
As I write this at the beginning of December, the most troubling cases are those involving our elected officials: Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold paid off a claim using taxpayer funds; Rep. John Conyers has resigned, and Senator Al Franken. Additionally, $17 million in payouts have been made against allegations from a congressional slush fund.
The Franken case is one of the more troubling. According to his first accuser, she refused his advances and then he took a photograph that suggested fondling her while she was asleep. She was wearing a flak jacket, fortunately, but the message was clear: If she refuses my advances, I can still demonstrate the power to have “contact” while she is helpless. If my daughter was the subject of that picture, my reaction would not be pretty.
Oddly, the reaction to all of the governmental allegations is to call for ethics investigations (as of publication, none have proceeded). We all understand the need for investigation, but “ethics” investigations take months and usually seem to be designed to let the heat dissipate. In the case of Franken, who is now up to three accusers, what will the ethics investigation show? That he is more guilty? Photographic evidence is far different that the “he said, she said” found in many investigations. I don’t even know how to address the case of Senate candidate Roy Moore where the election will be resolved before you read this.
The maelstrom which started in the entertainment industry with Harvey Weinstein that engulfed several entertainment “personalities” has now spread to the news media and the government. One of the unsung heroes of these events is social media. No longer can these organizations control the message and the flow of information. In fact, you could say that a number of these folks have been undone by social media platforms.
I think the message of Congress is that there are “special rules for special people,” and these special people cannot be removed from their jobs the way private sector people can. Of course, as I said above, an allegation met with a denial is not a de facto conviction. People are innocent until proven guilty, like being photographed being disrespectful while in the act of sexual harassment.
By the way, in Franken’s case, some defenders say, “he was still a comedian.” So the real joke is:
Who wants to watch a comedian who thinks fondling sleeping women is funny? Answer: The local sheriff.
HR is the local sheriff. Make sure everyone in your organization knows there are no special rules and, more importantly, no special people. We will all be better off.