When is sexual harassment in the workplace not sexual harassment? When it’s mandated by upper management. Business Technology’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert relates a story of an organisation that lost its bloody mind in the quest to make a better workplace.
‘Sexual harassment’ is a painful topic for a lot of organisations and rightfully so. The workplace is supposed to be a utopian island of blind professionalism; a place where every worker contributes, people’s differences don’t matter and rationality reigns. Also, I’m supposed to be a billionaire philanthropist. Clearly we’re not living in the ideal universe, because real workplaces are made up entirely of real people, with all their glorious flaws and weirdness. Also, I’m about a billion quid shy of becoming a billionaire. So much for real life conforming to business school models…
That said, even if people are naturally irrational on a depressingly frequent basis, sexual harassment still has to be stamped out wherever it manifests. Just because humans don’t naturally conform to the idealized version of themselves doesn’t mean that management doesn’t have an obligation to motivate their workers to act better. Unwanted sexual advances and sexual contact in the ranks are corrosive to good order. Therefore, improper conduct must be punished if and when it manifests.
In most workplaces, an allegation of misconduct made to management results in an investigation. Witnesses and suspects are interviewed, HR and legal get consulted and someone gets set straight. That’s pretty much normal for all modern businesses. We know how to do this.
Imagine, then, coming to work one morning and discovering that your organisation – one that had rigid rules for handing such allegations and also had plenty of recent experience applying said rules – was going about things entirely the wrong way round.
I saw this up happen up close. I came into work one morning and found a senior supervisor from another department quietly typing away in one of my (normally unoccupied) offices. When I asked my boss to find out what was going on, I was told that our ‘visitor’ was being terminated for sexual harassment, and would spend his last few weeks sequestered in our building while the investigation was initiated. Not ‘finalized’, mind you; ‘initiated’. As in, the punishment had been declared before the accused had been tried or found to be guilty. Everything about the situation reeked.
I was immediately suspicious, but I wasn’t necessarily surprised since the executive who claimed to have made the decision was well known around our campus as a diabolical sadist. This Evil Bob had a rich history of gleefully tormenting subordinates. As soon as he told me what was happening, I suspected that the fellow’s sudden relocation might be a pre-emptive attempt by upper management to discredit him in the court of public opinion. So, I started quietly digging into the case.
I vaguely knew the accused – let’s call him Tomas  – from our weekly interdepartmental staff meetings. Using the (completely true) pretext that the IT department was responsible for providing the fellow voice and data services in his new office, I dropped by and struck up a conversation. I learned that Tomas was (quite naturally) angry over being forced out of his supervisory role and was anxious to be exonerated through a formal investigation. I asked him to tell me what happened. He did. Did he sexually harass anyone? ‘No,’ he said. Did he place his hands on a female co-worker? ‘Yes of course!’ he said… because the executives had insisted that he was required to.
I have to place that statement in context, because I know that it sounds utterly ludicrous. That’s because it was utterly ludicrous, but also completely true. Tomas wasn’t lying.
Back in the late 1990s, our company’s chief executive attended a self-help seminar that struck a chord within him. When our Big Boss came back to work, he gushed to his executive staff how much better our people would get along in the office if only they all had the same sort of eye-opening personal growth experience. Some heads were put together, and the comptroller found a way to start paying for some of the senior employees to go participate in the 11-day course. 
At first, only the top executives and senior staff got to attend. They went, and they seemed to like it – a lot. Over time, after all of the division heads partook in the seminar, and they, too, seemed to like it. After two years of regular participation, the ‘growth opportunity’ started to reach further and further down into the lower tiers of the organisational chart. By 2001, the programme reached all the way down to me. I’d heard about it and didn’t see any point in yet another people skills course, so I didn’t volunteer to attend the half-dozen times it was offered in our staff meeting.
I didn’t appreciate at the time how strongly the executives felt about their programme. One afternoon, the deputy CEO advised me that I was ‘eligible’ to attend this Very Important Event, and that I was expected to joyfully embrace it… if I wanted to keep drawing a pay cheque. I was allowed to refuse, the executive said, provided I understood that there wasn’t any room in our ‘highly-competitive organisation’ for a manager who wasn’t a ‘team player’. The man wasn’t the least bit subtle about his threat: go to the programme or get fired. I saluted smartly and agreed to participate.
I expected a typical corporate interpersonal skills course like one of Covey’s ‘Seven Habits’ seminars. What I found was more of a cult indoctrination. The event was 70 per cent pop-culture psychobabble and 30 per cent tent-revival style pseudo-religious fervor. As soon as I walked in, the presenters hit us all with high-energy music, people dancing… and locked doors. The coordinator told us that we were ‘in’ the event for the duration. No one got to leave. Also, there were no phones. Or coffee. Or tobacco.
I learned that the woman running the event was the former partner of US television celebrity ‘Doctor Phil’ – in fact, she was ostensibly the co-creator of the man’s shtick. She and her buddy Phil had built a course to help people wrestle with their demons. The content was geared towards people who were making terrible personal choices and needed help to change, like drug abusers, alcoholics, jealous spouses, etc. It was abundantly clear early on that the event staff  believed strongly in the quasi-mystical power of ‘experiential training’ as a means of helping people change their own self-destructive behaviour. On the whole, the staff seemed guilelessly all-in.
The only business utility that I could see came towards the end of the course in two blocks: first, how to effectively communicate with others by respecting that their perspectives and biases may be different from your own. That part alone was probably worth what it cost to deliver for a lot of our managerial folks. Second, was a long seminar on personality typing that was designed to encourage respect for other people who think and act differently from you. Honestly, I didn’t see why we needed to send our people to an 11-day course in order to get about 1.5 days’ worth of germane content, but this was what the Big Boss wanted for everyone: better interpersonal skills with a chance of reduced drama. I could get behind that. Just not all the singing and ‘close encounter group’ touchy-feely business.
That, then, is why it was necessary to invest six paragraphs on an contextual aside: some of the rehabilitative ‘personal growth’ techniques that the staff encouraged the participants to adopt involved greater expression of emotional support of others and a willingness (in turn) to accept emptional support from others. Participants were encouraged to smile more,  to compliment others  and to frequently hug everyone.  I get why they advocated for this technique; many people are emotionally reserved and wind up starved for physical connections with other people. Telling people that it’s not only okay to give and to receive purely-platonic embraces had the potential to help some participants cope with the trauma that they were working through. That was fine for normal civilians; it was not fine for members of our rigid and formal workplace.
That’s how the whole mandated ‘sexual harassment’ mess going. Tomas was sent to the program (against his will, like most of the junior supervisors). There, he dutifully learned everything that the instructors taught, embraced the programme’s principles and came back to the office as another strong advocate for the programme’s goals: be friendly, be forgiving, don’t be a jerk and… yep… hug people all the damned time to express your emotional support and encouragement. In terms of the Big Boss’s intent, Tomas was a perfect poster child for a positive and selfless conversion.
To make matters worse, Tomas wasn’t the only happy convert. A cadre of True Believers had taken root in the organisation. The senior leaders who had ‘graduated’ from the programme started holding regular get-togethers during work hours – events that were restricted to programme graduates only. They’d meet in one of the large lecture halls to celebrate the addition of the newest graduates. There was singing, laughing and lots of hugging. I went to one of these, got freaked right the hell out by the creepy pseudo-intimacy and thereafter made it a point to stay as far away from these events as possible. Tomas did not. He participated as instructed, and toed the party line.
It really doesn’t take much social science training to see how this was all going to blow up. To be fair, there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with the programme’s ideals. The problem was that the programme’s techniques were incompatible with the culture and conduct regulations for a government workplace. Put simply, you can’t replace standing at attention and saluting your boss with a big hug and a playful tickle. This. Is. Not. Okay.
Worse, the crew of True Believers insisted that all programme graduates ‘live’ the programme in all aspects of daily operations – not just in the ‘members-only’ meet-ups. They wanted to proselytize their feel-good gospel all throughout the company until everyone else was assimilated. That meant doing things – like *£&$ing hugging fellow workers who hadn’t been to the event yet. This sort of conduct lay waaaaaaaaay outside the organisation’s mandated social norms. See above, re: Not Okay.
To be clear, I’m not trying to knock the True Believers’ beliefs. The people that I interviewed about the programme weren’t trying to change anyone’s religion or make people uncomfortable. Most of the graduates genuinely wanted all of their co-workers to be nicer to one another so that there would be fewer fights and other discipline problems. They meant well. Their approach, however, was doomed so long as they insisted in transplanting incompatible conduct into an inflexible environment.
In Tomas’ case, he did his part to be a good programme graduate. He was cheerful. He was helpful. He struggled to be non-judgmental. He hugged people show them that he cared about their well-being. Somewhere along the way, some of the women that Tomas had hugged interpreted his actions as being creepy, and complained to management that Tomas was sexually harassing them via unwanted physical contact. And… he was.
When you looked at it by the letter of the law, his actions were absolutely and clearly forbidden. Tomas knew that; he taught and enforced the company’s rules. But, then, by this point in the drama the company wasn’t following it’s own rules any more. We still had extremely strict restrictions governing interpersonal conduct that hadn’t been changed to match the Big Boss’s new vision for a ‘friendlier’ workplace. The upper managers all demanded ‘thou shalt’, while the rulebook demanded ‘thou shalt not’. Tomas was screwed.
The first harassment allegation provoked a sudden and vicious backlash against the True Believers. The Big Boss’s desire for a kinder, gentler organisation was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. People much higher up in the national organisation started to ask painful questions. It quickly became clear that the entire management tier was potentially subject to termination over the hostile work environment that they’d created. Lots of people panicked. Tomas – the programme’s poster boy – was branded a ‘sexual harasser’ in the court of public opinion before he was ever given a chance to defend himself. Rumours started to circulate among the rank-and-file: was our Big Boss going to declare that his programme now trumped our government personnel regulations? Or was he going to disavow his programme and abandon all official sanction for the actions of his True Believers? If you cynically suspected that the Big Boss would chose Option Two, well done you.
What actually happened in the Case of the Unwanted Embrace didn’t actually matter; in order for the Big Boss and his executive cronies to protect themselves against Higher Headquarters’ career-killing scrutiny, they had to demonstrate that the organisation had a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, that Tomas had acted entirely alone and that their squiffy hug-centric program wasn’t in any way undermining good order and discipline. In order to save the faithful, Tomas had to be sacrificed (metaphorically).
Questions continued to circulate for years after Tomas was ousted and the programme was officially de-funded. Had Tomas actually lecherously groped a co-worker or had his embrace been an act of innocent camaraderie? Had Tomas previously sexually harassed other co-workers? Did the flood of accusations that came up during the company’s ‘investigation’ have merit or were they fabricated to construct a Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish retroactive justification for a predetermined punishment? Was it appropriate to single out one mid-level manager for borderline-inappropriate conduct that was occurring all throughout the organisation? Had Tomas been compelled to engage in that inappropriate conduct by his supervisors and executives? As far as I know, none of those questions were ever answered.
The thing is, I have no idea whether or not Tomas was actually guilty of ‘sexual harassment’ under or not. Strictly out of curiosity, I interviewed Tomas about it. He claimed that he was faithfully obeying the orders he’d been given by his superiors to be physically expressive as a form of encouragement and respect. He told me that he never had any prurient interest in his co-workers. I also interviewed one of several women who filed sexual harassment complaints against Tomas. The accuser was convinced that Tomas was using the programme as cover for actions that were predatory rather than platonic. Ultimately, either or both of the participants could both have been telling the truth (as they perceived it). I had no reason to doubt either of them, and that’s a pretty damning indictment of the company’s out-of-control culture.
At the heart of the case was the unwanted and unprofessional physical contact. That was unambiguously forbidden under company policy. On the other hand, the site’s executive caste had deliberately and repeatedly encouraged – I would go so far as to say ‘pressured’ – employees to regularly violate those same policies. Many people – me included – were told that our jobs were on the line if we didn’t play along. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Who, then, was responsible for the mess? I submit that there’s only one conclusion: the leaders who put Tomas into that untenable position should have taken responsibility for their error, reset all of the employees’ conduct expectations, given Tomas a suitable path to rehabilitation and offered Tomas’s victim an explanation and an apology for their inability to comply with the company’s professional conduct standards. Was Tomas guilty of misconduct? Yes. But, then, so were his bosses. I believe strongly that when a worker and a supervisor both violate a regulation, the supervisor is accountable for both workers’ actions. The supervisor is paid to know better, and to to enforce company rules.
That’s what should have happened. Instead, the powers-that-were burned their loyal operative in order to save their own hides. Tomas lost his career after 20 years of faithful service. The executives all got promotions and career-enhancing transfers.
If you’re looking for the usual cowboy movie tie-in from the title, I submit that it’s all in the theme. Back in 1992, cowboy movie icon Clint Eastwood directed and produced an atypically grim story about getting justice outside of the law when lawmen won’t act. In the story, some bad people mutilate a woman. The local lawman won’t take action to punish the criminals, so the victim’s friends hire a young hothead and an old gunfighter to pursue revenge. The film was exceptional because it blurred the lines between what should have been clear-cut heroes and villains. It also raised serious questions about the nature of justice and the legitimacy of vengeance. It considered the standard tropes of the classic American Western and exposed them as being morally bankrupt.
In the strange case of Tomas, many of the same principles apply. All of the players involved – the loyal hug-giver, the violated hug-receiver, the exuberant True Believers, the rule-bending executives and the visionary Big Boss all blurred the lines between innocent and guilty. The aftermath of The Unwanted Embrace exposed just how cavalier the key leaders were acting, and how they’d lost control of their organisation. Finally, instead of fixing the problem that they’d created, they took vengeance on the dupe that exposed their mistakes, There were no heroes in the story, and there was certainly no semblance of justice.
 Not his real name, obviously. I chose this pseudonym based on the protagonist ‘Tom Sanders’ from Michael Crichton’s sexual harassment novel Disclosure.
 Technically, it was one five-day weekend where you were locked away from the outside world for the entire time, then a pair of three-day follow-up weekends, each set a month apart.
 Most of whom where uncompensated volunteers drawn from pervious iterations of the course.
 Okay; sure.
 Eh… maybe.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.