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The Momentum of Silence: A Case Study Emphasizes the Explosive Impact of Tolerating Sexual Harassment

January 29th, 2016 Christopher Davis

When Jane’s phone buzzed, she knew that it would be her boss. Sure enough, he had texted Jane on her personal line, asking her to come by his office before lunch. No matter what her boss needed, he always seemed to require Jane’s physical presence. He’d stand too close to her, quickly telling her whatever information he’d called her in for, and then transition to asking probing questions about Jane’s personal life.

It didn’t seem like enough to complain about, even though it made Jane uncomfortable. She needed to keep her job, and her boss didn’t make her feel threatened, necessarily. A report to HR was probably unnecessary. Maybe he was just too friendly. Maybe he was paying her extra attention because she’d been doing good work.

Not wanting to make trouble, Jane never mentioned her boss’s behavior to any of her coworkers. She had no way of knowing that they, too, were enduring the same things she was.

Do you know someone who has endured something similar—or have you? A repressive workplace culture can be damaging to employees in need of a voice and remedies for unfair treatment, violations of the law, or violations of workplace policies. This is particularly so in the case of sexual harassment, where tacit consent to harassing behavior may encourage or even worsen the problems for others in the workplace. Often, employees facing sexual or other forms of harassing behavior from coworkers, supervisors, or bosses see putting up with the behavior as their only option. As with Jane, employees might never realize that they aren’t the only targets of the harassment—it simply may never cross their mind. When faced with the possibility of backlash—potentially in the form of a poor performance review, a demotion, or even a termination—making an internal complaint, no matter how meritorious or sensibly stated, is often less appealing than tolerating the inappropriate behavior. These powerful deterrents against accountability for sexual harassment in the workplace have consequences for other women, including the next generation of young professionals entering the workforce for the first time. A culture of silence can be a quietly insidious force within a company that causes the problem to gain momentum over time—similar to a hurricane that gains strength before making landfall.

A recent case highlights both the magnitude of this problem and the explosive consequences of excessive tolerance. In December 2015, a D.C. public relations firm called FitzGibbon Media faced a sudden shutdown after its president, Trevor FitzGibbon, was accused of sexual harassment. In a period of days, a group of the firm’s female staffers and clients alike became aware of each other’s similar complaints of sexual harassment against FitzGibbon, and came forward. The Huffington Post reported that “the pieces of FitzGibbon’s behavior started to come together during a staff retreat.”

In a joint statement, former FitzGibbon media staffers said that female employees “reported over a half dozen incidents of sexual harassment and at least two involving sexual assault committed by Trevor FitzGibbon against his own employees.”

Ironically, FitzGibbon and his firm worked with numerous progressive organizations, including NARAL, the ACLU, MoveOn, and the Center for American Progress.

“For decades, Trevor presented himself a champion of the progressive movement, claiming to support and respect women and feminist issues, from equal pay to reproductive rights, but his actions prove a hypocrisy so great that FitzGibbon Media closed its doors today, as we could no longer continue working under his leadership,” the firm’s December 17 statement continued.

FitzGibbon’s harassing behavior came to light when journalist Sierra Pedraja of Austin, Texas sought a full-time position at FitzGibbon Media. A friend who worked for the company had put her in touch with Trevor FitzGibbon to discuss her potential employment when he was in town for the December staff retreat, which brought together employees from all the firm’s offices.

Ms. Pedraja sent FitzGibbon her cover letter and resume, but when they met that evening in the hotel where the firm was staying, she had to press FitzGibbon to get him to talk to her about the position. Reportedly, FitzGibbon told Ms. Pedraja that “since he owned the firm, he could hire anyone he liked.” He asked whether Ms. Pedraja was open to “having any fun” while he was in town, and later asked if she wanted to meet him alone at the hotel. Ms. Pedraja declined, accepting that she would not get the job.

“I was very eager to get a job, and he used that to his advantage,” said Ms. Pedraja. “He tried to make me feel very uncomfortable. He made it seem like I owed him these things to get the job… I was not entertaining it at all. I didn’t ask for it.”

Ms. Pedraja shared what had happened with several FitzGibbon Media employees, who began to share stories amongst one another and realized that there was a pattern of sexual harassment. Multiple women reported that FitzGibbon “often became uncomfortably physical,” asked for hugs, requested pictures of them, and invited them to his hotel room while on business trips.

“I couldn’t speak up because I was afraid of retaliation,” said one anonymous female staffer, explaining that she never revealed the harassment she experienced for fear of getting fired.

A former FitzGibbon Media client also reported that she had been “coaxed to a hotel room and groped” by FitzGibbon, who allegedly entered the room and grabbed the client’s breast while she was on a business phone call. FitzGibbon faces at least two allegations of assault.

The lesson for employees—like Jane Doe—is that even moderately inappropriate or uncomfortable behavior by fellow employees is often a sign of a larger issue. No amount of sexual harassment is ever acceptable, whether within or outside of the workplace. But sexual harassment adds an increased measure of vulnerability in the workplace, since employees fear backlash for reporting—or even discussing—the behavior that they have experienced. Particularly if the harasser is a figure of authority, it is difficult for employees to speak out. But, critically, failing to do so can compound the issue and worsen it, not only for oneself, but for other employees as well. The high stakes involved make it even more critical that sexually harassing behavior is stopped before it progresses. It’s up to both the victims and observers of harassment—male and female alike—to ensure that harassment is recognized as having no part in the workplace, in New York, or anywhere else.

This is no easy task, and under-reporting is certainly understandably human; however, even for those who ultimately choose not to challenge sexual harassment, the experience of the women at FitzGibbon Media corroborates the fact that there are benefits to simply speaking with other women in the workplace about harassing behavior. Collective and open communication—challenging the silence—can be personally empowering. It is not uncommon, in the context of these conversations, for an alliance to develop that protects those women who do not wish to come forward, with the understanding that at a later point, if push comes to shove and a lawsuit is filed, they would be willing to come forward if subpoenaed or otherwise compelled to testify. A subpoena or compelled deposition is often excellent protection for women who do not wish to come forward otherwise.

The future for members of FitzGibbon Media is uncertain, but for now, the firm’s employees know that they are out of jobs, and, as of January 2016, out of benefits. Nearly 30 employees were left hanging, suddenly unemployed just before Christmas without having been given bonuses or even severance pay. Trevor FitzGibbon’s abrupt resignation also meant the end of the company’s work, stopping a successful, progressive firm in its tracks just barely into its fifth year of operation. The sudden collapse of FitzGibbon Media is clear evidence that sexual harassment is a bottom-line issue that negatively affects not only employees, but the financial health of the company itself—and in this case, its very existence.

The question which employers and employees who face a culture of silence and the threat of ongoing incidents of sexual harassment ultimately must answer is “how much am I willing to accept before it becomes too much?” The best approach to answering this question, in the experience of the attorneys at this firm, is to answer the question by imagining a loved one enduring the same—would I advise my wife to tolerate this?  My daughter?  This exercise makes the consequence of one’s own tolerance of sexual harassment stand out in stark relief.  This may create some motivation, but don’t expect an empowering moment—it is often followed by fear, intimidation, confusion, and pain.  So the first step in your plan should be to speak with others in the workplace whom you trust, or others in your family, and then seek a free confidential consult from an attorney and build your own momentum.  Your voice will matter to someone, and may have beneficial consequences for other women facing sexual harassment in the workplace—all daughters, wives, and loved ones, all human and deserving of better treatment—who will benefit from the impact of your decision to tell your story.