Quiet cover-ups

Several years ago, a young woman who was following developments concerning workplace bullying shared a personal story with me.

She once held a job as an administrative assistant, and her boss had been sexually harassing her. She described how his conduct was both verbal and physical, and in my view it likely constituted a hostile work environment in violation of employment discrimination laws. In addition, her boss was known for having harassed other young female employees.

She reported the harassment to the human resources director, who promptly told her there was nothing that could be done about her boss’s wrongful behavior. Instead, she was offered a lower paying position in a different department. Because she was relying on her employer’s tuition subsidy benefit for employees completing degree programs, she reluctantly accepted this less-than-ideal “resolution.”

Quiet cover-ups

When we contemplate cover-ups and corruption in organizations, we typically envision high-profile corporate and political scandals involving lots of money and/or power.

But quiet, more modest cover-ups, such as this one committed by a complicit HR director who protected a harassing boss and the organization from being held accountable, occur with much greater frequency. In these instances, those who opt not to file lawsuits in response to illegal behavior — often for understandable reasons — are left to cope as best they can.

A true test of institutional integrity is how an employer responds to complaints from workers near the bottom of the organizational chart who make credible reports of unlawful conduct. It is easy to bury these complaints — especially, for example, when the aggrieved party is a young woman who does not wish to make waves.

These ground-level corruptions, however, are indicative of an employer that lacks a commitment to ethical behavior. Is it an exaggeration to suggest that such an organization has the core potential to become the Enron of tomorrow?

9 responses

  1. Thank you for the great article. Years ago, I was an Executive Assistant working through a Temp agency and the VP of Safety in a very large company began to sexually harass me on the job. I remember it quite vividly actually. He was a person in a position of power and it was my birthday. He called me into his office and told me to shut the door. When I questioned him about shutting the door, which was very unusual, he told me firmly to shut the door. I didn’t want to shut the door, so I left it open. He got up and shut the door and proceded to tell me that he was taking me to lunch that day and we’d leave at 11:00 a.m. and come back at 3:00 p.m. That didn’t feel right to me at all, in fact, I was shocked and disgusted.

    There was no way I was going to go to lunch with him and so I asked him to elaborate and clarify what he had “intended” to do for all those hours we would be at lunch? He smiled and thought it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny in the least and I told him that even though he was my boss and I was his secretary, and I respected him, I was not going to go with him. He smiled very sarcastically and told me that if I didn’t go to lunch with him that day, he was going to turn around and tell the temp agency that I was a horrible secretary and that they needed to fire me and get him a replacement immediately and that he’d ruin my career. I could read between the lines and could see where this was going, so I stalled for more time so I could figure out who I could talk to in the organization to “whistleblow” his unethical behavior. So as disgusted as I was with this sexual encounter–I heard myself saying I’d think about it and I’d get back to him.

    As soon as I left his office, I went into the ladies restroom and cried. I pulled myself back together and went back to my office and smiled at him and said I’m going to finish the dictation and would have the report on his desk within the hour. I really struggled to get through the dictation and had the report back on his desk. And then I went to visit a woman who had befriended me when I first got there. She was the only one I knew who I could trust. When I told her what Charlie said and how utterly disgusting he was and how unethical he was–she put her arms around me and said “I am so sorry this happening to you and I have a solution. I need you to tell my boss what you just said. I know how upset you are and with very good reason!” She then told me to go back to my office and I’d receive a phone call from her boss.

    A short while later, I received a phone call from her and said it was time to visit her at her office to see her boss. I didn’t realize this at the time, but the woman was the Legal Secretary to the HR Administrator of the entire company. Her boss was very nice to me and asked me to relate in my own words what was said to me and he asked if he could record our conversation. Through my tears of anguish, I agreed because I know he needed proof. I related the awful disgusting details what Charles said to me about taking me out on my birthday for lunch and to come back so late in the afternoon. Bob was very apologetic to me and very nice and thanked me for telling him what had happened.

    Meanwhile, I pulled myself together as best as I could and went back to my office. A few hours later, just as I was going to the copy room to make some copies, Charlie came around the corner and smiled at me and said, “don’t forget our lunch! We’ll be leaving within 15 minutes!” I was so disgusted and just then, Bob came around the corner and said “no so fast Charlie, I need to pull you into a meeting.” Charlie tried to get out of it by saying he and I were going to be in a meeting and Bob said “this is far more important and steer Charlie by the elbow down the hall & into a meeting room. Meanwhile, sweet Bonnie showed up and said “c’mon sweeie, I’m taking you to lunch for your birthday and we’re getting out of here.”

    Bonnie was very sweet to me because she was the one who I had cried my heart out to and and it was her boss that I told about the horrible sexual harassment. By the time lunch was over and we went back to the office, I was feeling more protected, safe and calmer. A few hours later, Charlie called me into his office and tried to deny that he had approached me for sex earlier. He tried to make it seem like it was all my idea and I clearly made it known that I didn’t make it up and he had tried to force himself on me by taking advantage of his authority position within the company to have sex with me and try to ruin my career. I told him that he was way out of line and that you don’t do this to people because it’s wrong. I told him that he was as ugly as an old toad and I wouldn’t have any kind of relationship with him unless it was professional only and that’s it. He laughed and thought it was funny. I didin’t think it was funny at all.

    He then proceeded to tell me that the company was removing him from his office as VP of Safety and he was leaving the country to go work in China. He said that was fine with him because there would be plenty of geisha girls falling all over him and that would suit him just fine. I was horrified that he was getting off like that. The company then shortly moved me into a different position in the company and shortly after that, my assignment ended.

  2. I wish these situations were rare exceptions, but they happen all too frequently….even today.

    I continue to wrestle with questions over how much of it is the fault of the individual harasser vs. an organizational culture that implicitly or explicitly approves of such conduct. In any event, it’s a terrible experience for the targeted individual, as your account so vividly explains. Thank you.

  3. Professor Yamada,

    You are absolutely correct.

    Institutions that chose to cover up unethical behavior will likely fail. The word eventually leaks out, and when it does, branding and legal counsel won’t undo the damage.

    When I brought ethical concerns to HR, I was pushed out.

  4. We, as a society, value success and intelligence above all. We no longer teach our children values. It was so well shown on Frasier when Lilith was in a dither about Frederick’s placement in the right preschool so that someday he could go to Harvard or some other ivy league school. It’s one calculated move after another to achieve SUCCESS. I like the Jewish concept of being a mensch… I am not sure how they would define it but I have viewed “mensch” as a person with soul… someone who stands for something and for people as well. I am certain a mensch would not work at Enron or some other institution that would use deception and fraud on a grand scale to hurt others in the name of success.

  5. Dear Dave
    It is a huge misfortune that any employee should ever encounter bullying or abuse in the workplace. Let me tell my story. I started working when i was 14 years old full time summers. Before that i mowed lawns and shoveled sidewalks. In the fall of my 14th year i started working after school through a group called manpower up in Water town N.Y. I continued working until January 2011, when i became severely ill from severe stress at work that was a direct result of bullying and harassment and a very hostile work environment. I put up with it for 10 years, and then i broke. I developed a post traumatic stress like disorder that made me afraid to due the in depth technical work i had mastered after 34 years. My psychologist pulled me out and told me i would die there if i did not get out. i was being yelled at daily, stalked. set up and called names and humiliated on a regular basis in public and private. i was regularly called at home and on my cell phone and screamed at and called names and threatened, i was sent emails and threatened. i was called names by this woman that you would not hear in a factory loading dock with men joking around. I was seriously ill and have not returned to work. This woman in this non for profit community center was allowed to have so much power that i began to feel helpless and hopeless, the board let her do it and ignored my cries for help, explaining that they were aware of it, but she was a good fund raiser, and they were not about to lose her. 14 years ago i suffered a brain tumor and i lost total hearing in one ear. This woman constantly made fun of my deaf ear, telling me i was using my deaf ear because i obviously was not listening to her. I f i did not answer the company cell phone right away, i was told she was going to pin that fffing phone to my good ear. This woman humiliated me in public and in front of my coworkers on a regular basis and in front of my business associates. I could go on but it would take hours. I would just like to say that no employee should ever have to experience this, when we are trying to do something good in the world and provide for our family. It is hard enough to survive!!!!!! To everyone out there, do not let yourself be a target, stand up and fight and find ways to fight back!!! I am, i have several lawsuits against this woman and agency right now and i am not backing down until i get compensated for my suffering and loss. I was also forced to work 50-70 hours a week with no overtime, because i was salary. I am fighting for this as well. When my psychologist asked for reasonable accommodations in early February for me to try and return i was terminated immediately. So to all of you who have been, or are being bullied, stand up, do not give up and fight back, use the workplace bullying website and read David Yamadas posts. To all employers who allow bullying, look out, your time has come, because we are not going to stand for it anymore in this society, stand down your day has come!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Mel
    Syracuse N.Y.

  6. My job in Scotland UK was with a small charitable organisation (10 staff and a board of 6 volunteer directors).I endured 18 months of being
    victimised by a boss with many psycopathic personality traits.She involved her manager and the chair of the board in trying to remove me from my job and destroy my professional reputation and I naively believed that HR would help me.They employed an HR consultant to cover up what they were doing to me and to protect the managers and the reputations of board members who were prominent members of the local community.The enormous cost of this was paid from public funds.She took the victimisaton and abuse to a whole new level and forced me out of the job I loved. My husband and I have just finished writing a book – a fictionalised version of my experience combined with information from experts in the field of worlplace abuse. We are hoping to get this published to raise awareness of the issue and help others identify
    what is happening to them and how to get help. It is a huge problem here in the UK too and we have to do more to stop it.Kathy

    • Kathy i am sorry for your loss and grief and yes i know this epidemic is world wide and it is much more prevalent than many people are aware. I t seems more prevalent among power hungry managers that are under achievers themselves and are insecure and in their minds need to prove that other successful people like you and i are incompetent. Raising awareness is the only way we are going to get laws passed. I myself do not know if i will ever work again and it is frightening and demoralizing, the pain continues long after we leave the jobs. Keep the faith and do not stop trying.
      Mel

  7. This article does a good job of helping to raise awareness of harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, sexual harassment still continues in the workplace along with other irresponsible behaviors. I was involved with many investigations into harassment in my 30 years in Human Resources Management and there were two patterns that existed in every investigation. First, there were always multiple victims of harassment involved in each situation and the person guilty of the harassment never admitted or thought they were guilty. I was fortunate to work for companies who took harassment in the workplace seriously, and the guilty parties were fired. The only point I would disagree with in this article is that I am not sure there is such a thing as a “modest cover-up”.

  8. In the following, you seem to have crystallized a great deal: “A true test of institutional integrity is how an employer responds to complaints from workers near the bottom of the organizational chart who make credible reports of unlawful conduct.” It recalls the observation that the treatment afforded a society’s most-vulnerable members reveals how humane and civilized that culture really is. It also reminds me of a number of acquaintances who refrained from asserting essential employee rights: each had reason to believe that doing so would further compromise their interests. Recently, on seeing a news cover story on that organization’s “remarkable growth,” I felt for those ex-colleagues. Not only does the firm not “create jobs”, it replaces hard-earned, decent jobs with lower-paying ones that offer far fewer chances to exercise one’s own good judgment in service of the customer. By contrast, everyone who works at an organization which make “fighting the good fight” pay — in lucre and in personal growth — should commend themselves for contributing to free enterprise and a just society.

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