It’s time to talk about why I left a job in 2010.
I worked for a serial sexual harasser. I was his chief of staff.
He was so good at his job that many, many people looked the other way. He had built the organization himself, personally recruited enough funders for a multi-million dollar budget, and was pretty great at what he did. Like with so many harassers, there was a feeling in a lot of places that his creepy behavior to women was just something to work around because he was so valuable to the organization (and even to the broader movement we worked in).
I had known him for years before coming to work for him, but it wasn’t until I started working for him that I saw that characteristics I had assumed were confined to his personal life showed up at work in really inappropriate ways. He talked about sex a lot. He spoke about women in crude, objectifying terms. And I gradually saw over time that he looked at women who worked for him not just as employees, but also as potential dates.
I talked to him about this many times. I tried to get him to let me implement a sexual harassment policy. He refused, claiming that if we did, people other than him would be in violation of it too. (And that was true — he’d created a culture where he wasn’t the only one who told dirty jokes and talked about sex inappropriately, which was all the more reason to address it.) I talked to him over and over about the impact his behavior had on women. Multiple times I tried to get him to understand why it’s horrible to have your boss assessing you sexually — why it’s awful and unwelcome in a way that’s much worse than with someone who doesn’t have power over you. He was unmoved. I tried to explain the legal and PR jeopardy he was putting the organization in. I got nowhere. Ultimately, he was my boss and I couldn’t make him change.
Meanwhile, I felt that at least my job allowed me to act as a buffer between him and the staff. I felt I could do more good by staying than by leaving, because I was willing to call him on his behavior. In retrospect, this was an error — it’s not possible to stop someone like that, no matter how many angry conversations you’re willing to have.
In the summer of 2009, close to my breaking point, I told him that if I heard one more story about him behaving inappropriately with female employees, I’d quit. This time, he agreed he would stop, and naively, I thought maybe I’d somehow finally gotten through to him.
Less than a month later, he had an encounter with a young, drunk employee after a happy hour that seemed not just gross/creepy but predatory.
What followed were months of turmoil for the organization. Seven employees quit, and all of the organization’s department heads and I called on the board of directors — who he reported to — to remove him from his position.
In response to that, he convinced several of us, including me, that if he was forced out, the funders he’d brought in would leave too, meaning the organization would need to lay off the majority of its staff. This seemed plausible — he’d personally cultivated wealthy donors and had personal relationships with them, while no one else on staff had much contact with them. (The board members too were handpicked contacts of his and, again, were nearly all men who he’d built close relationships with.)
In retrospect, I don’t know if his claim was true. But he was convincing enough that several of us, including me, backed off our recommendation that he be removed because we didn’t want to cause the organization to fold. I’ve regretted that decision for years. I wish I’d made a different call. The people calling for his removal deserved my explicit support, and I failed them by not giving that.
I also want to be up-front that the way I tried to navigate the situation left some people thinking I was being an apologist for him. I never intended that. I had a years-long track record of calling him out on his behavior. But I definitely did make mistakes in trying to figure out how to help the organization and its staff through an awful situation, and some of those mistakes laid me open to understandable criticism. I’ve wished for years that I could have a redo, because there’s a lot I would do differently if I had the chance.
Anyway, the board of directors suspended him for three months, then reinstated him when the three months were up. The morning he returned after being reinstated, I left.
I’ve spent the last near-decade trying to understand why I stayed as long as I did and why I didn’t push harder for him to be removed not just from a position of power, but from any job there at all. I don’t think I could have changed the outcome — it became pretty clear that he and the board were committed to keeping him there — but it would have been the right thing to do.
I’ve asked myself many times whether my earlier friendship with him made it tougher for me to see clearly what was going on. I think it did. I was too willing to believe the best of him, long after the point I should have left.
I know that I was influenced by the fact that I loved my job and I loved the organization — you’re hearing the bad parts, but there were great parts too — and I thought I could do more good by staying than by leaving.
And frankly, I was in over my head. I didn’t have any experience in how to handle a situation like that.
Like a lot of managers, I’d never had any training in handling sexual harassment complaints. I even let him convince me for a time that we’d never had any “official complaints” about his behavior, just because no one had said they were officially complaining. (For the record: That is bullshit. A complaint does not need to come with an “official complaint” label for an organization to be obligated to act on it.)
I also just couldn’t figure out what to do after hitting a wall with his refusal to change. I strongly suspected talking to the board wouldn’t accomplish anything (which was later borne out by their lack of action once they did hear from people), and they were the top of the management line. So I was where I think a lot of people end up — stuck and unsure of what to do.
But the fact that I didn’t leave sooner and do more to expose him publicly on my way out is the biggest regret of my career.
In the years since, I’ve tried to use my platform at Ask a Manager to speak out against harassment and to advocate for women. I hope I’ve built a strong track record here of urging people not to accommodate harassment, to report it, and to take stronger action if their employer doesn’t make things right. That’s very much rooted in my own experiences in an organization where the management above me wouldn’t act.
I haven’t talked publicly about this before now because, honestly, I was scared to. There was an article written about it back in 2010 with lots of inaccuracies, and I didn’t like the thought of stirring that up again. The man at the center of this is also very eager to threaten to sue people who talk about this situation. But with it coming up again now (and, to be up-front, a reporter asking me about it), I want to be straightforward about what happened, and I want you as readers to know that I didn’t get it right then but I’ve been trying to get it right ever since.
something personal was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.