Pete is an ordinary kind of man in the afternoon of his career. He likes his new job working for a medium-sized organisation; or at least he did until he found himself accused of sexual harassment.
It came after just a few months in the job, and it came in the form of a personal email from someone he’d never heard of, accusing him of intruding into her personal space, watching her all the time and generally creeping her out by always walking past her cubicle. It added that another person (unnamed) had also noted allegedly slinky behaviour from him.
Things may not have been helped by Pete’s immediate assumption that this was an online hoax, which he read out to his team – until someone pointed out that it was signed by the occupant of the cubicle next to his.
Pete was, he says, stunned. As far as he was aware he had never had any interchange of any sort with the complainant, nor had he ever thought to. He didn’t even know her name or anything about her. She was just another huddled head in the jumble of a large cubicle farm.
He went home worried, confused and shocked. He’s worked hard to get to the top in his profession – it’s a small but vital one so no clues, sorry – most of it spent in close proximity to female workers and clients. He’s a team person, a lifelong leftie, he’s nearer 60 than 50, adores his wife, is sensitive to others, is liked and admired by all who have worked with him, etc etc. And no one has ever complained before about his attitude or actions at work.
So the next day he wrote a response. It said, in summary, that he hadn’t even been aware of her, denied ever being in her proximity and assured her he had no interest in her in any way. But he was sorry if he’d somehow disturbed her.
Then he took his draft to the HR manager, who agreed it was a good letter and should settle things down.
So he sent it, and received a brief response acknowledging his denial and his apology if he had made her uncomfortable; but she repeated her original claim that he had sexually harassed her, and she hoped he’d behave appropriately in future.
And that’s where it stands. No meetings, no discussion of any sort. No resolution. Pete isn’t happy; he believes her letter could now be attached to his personal file, waiting to make an appearance at some time in the future. Was the letter circulated to the organisation’s most senior managers, and if so was his response attached? And who was the other person the complainant alleged had also criticised him? Did such a person even exist? And did anybody except him care about pursuing this matter?
Pete has relocated to a cubicle as far away from the complainant as he can get. The story went around the office, of course, and although he has not noticed any change in the positive attitude of his colleagues, he nevertheless feels damaged.
He avoids walking anywhere near the complainant’s cubicle, even though members of his team are in the area. An old back pain has re-emerged. He’s a mess, not because he feels people think less of him, but because his personal reputation has been attacked and he has had no chance to defend himself. He’d quit, but what would that be saying?
Pete could also, of course, have just ignored a personal letter making unfair and unprovable allegations. But he’s one of those people who has worked hard to get to where he is, and when it comes to jobs in his little field of expertise, his personal and professional reputations are his biggest assets.
Actions and comments can be misinterpreted, sometimes innocently and sometimes with malicious intent. And then there’s the gossip that follows in any workgroup. Gossip is, by its nature, malignant; it grows in a vacuum. Only facts can kill it.
But let’s put this particular case in perspective. Pete’s predicament led me to read through some of the evidence related to workplace sexual harassment that has been brought to various tribunals in recent years. The fear, pain, humiliation and despair that some people put their workmates or employees through is awful, and by such measures Pete’s case is a storm in a small teacup.
The lesson from all this – if there is one – is to always pursue a resolution to an office spat, particularly where one party accuses another, without offering evidence, of unseemly behaviour.
Pete will eventually get over the humiliation and sense of injustice he feels right now, but it will take much more time before he feels safe enough to ease the lingering concern that his manner or his behaviour at work might be being misinterpreted or even imagined.