The Horror of Sexual Harassment

When are we going to put an end to the ‘penis principle’ — the need of some male leaders to abuse their position  and power, simply to  fulfill the whims of  their penis?

A few months back, I had a coffee with a former employee of 10 years ago. We got around to talking about a dark period in her career, about five years back, when she was the victim of continued sexual harassment from a senior leader in her company.

I sat and listened intently with a mix of sympathy, empathy, and downright anger. As a man I have to wonder: when are we going to put an end to the penis principle — the need of some men in leadership roles to abuse their position and power, simply to fulfill the whims of their penis? It’s called “the penis principle” and far too many business leaders are following this principle as opposed to the principle of “Do the right thing.”

It was spellbinding to listen to the story. It wasn’t a benign matter of uttering a few four-letter words in a meeting. No, this was far more direct. It all started with text messages. Asking her to lunch, to dinner. It became incessant — every time he would see her in the office, the texts would start. He would become angry when she would politely decline his invitations. At company events, he would drink and become more aggressive, coming up to her all sweaty and being far too “touchy.”

Her life became miserable and it was all about how to avoid him and confrontation. He was the big boss, so the pressure was enormous. She avoided the office so he would not see her and hence trigger a new flurry of text messages. Her friends tried to shield and support her. Eventually, her direct bosses learned of the issue; yet, rather than confront the big boss about his behavior, they decided to “help” by transferring her to an external sales role outside the offices. A classic case of a weak, compromised settlement instead of doing the right thing and confronting the issue head-on. It helped, but it still didn’t solve the issue as there were the inevitable times she would cross paths with what I can only call the “predator” and the messages and pressure to meet up would recommence.

Eventually, somebody had the courage to raise the matter up the line to HR. And after an investigation, it was clear there was harassment and the senior leader was immediately terminated. So, finally, some justice, after over a year of inaction — a year of hell for this dynamic young woman.

I wish I could say all is well now, but I can’t. The story is now four-plus years old, but the scars remain. With tears streaming down her face, she told me she has resigned from the company. Why? Well, it seems after the transfer out into the field, she still needed to at some point “come back” into an HQ-based role, if she wanted to be promoted to the next level. She simply can’t do it. The memories are so sharp, and the lingering damage done, that she would rather quit than re-enter her old role, which brings back far too many stinging reminders. So she has resigned, four-plus years later.

Everyone loses in cases of harassment. There are no winners. The harasser loses career and reputation. The victim is scarred for life. And the company has lost completely in all respects. They now lose a top talent, because of an incident years ago that comes back one way or the other.