Some will remember Anita Hill’s sexual harassment case against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas in the early 1990’s. I certainly do. That was around the same time that I was precipitously fired. I had been hired to make massive change in a very traditional and bureaucratic organization. The changes included changes in power. Once the shock of my termination was gone and the dust settled, it was clear to me that speaking truth to power was the “why” of my termination. I had several “speaking truth to power” situations. The one that I did not survive related to a male in a high level position who harassed women in positions of less power. I never questioned if addressing this problem through the proper channels was the right thing to do, and I knew very well the risks involved. Could I ever prove the real reasons for my termination? No, but that did not change my reality.
In my situation, I was encouraged by several people to sue the organization for unlawful termination, specifically gender discrimination. My response was, “Anita Hill has a much stronger case than me, and she isn’t doing so well!” Also, I knew that legally the CEO was within his rights due to NC being an employment-at-will state, especially for people in upper management positions. So we came to an agreement on terms, and I moved on. Anita Hill moved on as well, and wrote a book about her experience with Clarence Thomas, entitled, aptly so, Speaking Truth to Power.
Now almost twenty-five years later, we have harassment cases, sexual and otherwise, still being litigated. One recent high profile case is that of Bill Cosby, a case which will likely be litigated for years. Then there is the high profile case that recently occurred and was quickly settled out of court for $20 million! Gretchen Carlson’s speaking truth to power netted her $20 million in a suit against Roger Ailes, Fox News Chairman, for sexual harassment. She also received an apology from Fox News, Ailes’ and her employer when the harassment occurred, and the one who will pay for the settlement.
Harassment of any type is illegal in the U.S. Unfortunately, the fact that it is illegal has not eradicated it, especially with people in high positions harassing people in other positions. The harassment usually occurs by men in positions of power against usually (but not always) women. Too often the risks associated with pursuing these cases either through a company’s internal resources such as human resources or externally through the legal system are too great for some people. There is also the “blame the victim” mentality on the part of some people, and the belief that one should just turn their heads to these things and move on. Donald Trump, the male U.S. presidential nominee, said if such happened to his daughter, he hoped she would “just switch jobs, or even careers.” How simplistic (and sad) of an answer to what is often a very complex situation.
And to be “fair” and non political, it should be mentioned that Bill Clinton had a sexual relationship with a White House Intern when he was president, but that fails the test of the legal definition of sexual harassment, since by all indications it was consensual. The fact that it wasn’t legally sexual harassment in no way excuses Bill Clinton’s behavior. He was obviously in a position of power over the intern, and used that power inappropriately.
“Hats off” to Gretchen Carlson for speaking truth to power, and for being very smart as to what she did to prove her allegations. It is quite possible that this large monetary settlement will deter some from treating others less than respectfully in the workplace. It is also possible that this case will even change some of the power dynamics between those in positions of power and those with little or no position power.
The power, and the obligation, that we all have is to speak the truth, wherever that falls, and to be willing and able to suffer through the predictable conflicts that ensue. Saying that, however, does not change the fact that for various reasons, some people will not be able to do so. They need the Anita Hills and Gretchen Carlsons to have their backs.
Progress is being made, but still with gender and power differences. Yes, Gretchen Carlson received a good settlement from Fox News, $20 million. However, Roger Ailes, the perpetrator, received a better settlement, $40 million, from Fox News, for exiting the company as requested soon after the story broke.
Yes, some good change. But not enough.