What? Sexual harassment? When I began workplace consulting back in the mid 1980s, the term “sexual harassment” hadn’t yet been conceived. Slowly, as if it were some new phenomenon, allegations of sexual harassment began to surface. But most organizations didn’t have policies or procedures to deal with these incidents.
If recent events are any measure, not much has changed significantly where sexual harassment in the workplace is concerned. In 1996, Lieutenant General Claudia J. Kennedy, the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Army, found herself the victim of sexual harassment and tried to report it quietly through the appropriate channels. She thought that the man who had harassed her, Major General Larry Smith — would be properly punished. Then, this year, he was promoted instead and the general went public with her charges.
According to a May 10 New York Times article, the U.S. Army’s inspector general “concluded that the service’s highest-ranking woman was a victim of inappropriate sexual advances from another Army general. ?”
You would think that if such a case is reported on page one of such a prestigious newspaper, that things have really come a long way in sexual harassment cases. Wrong!
In fact, Kennedy’s case typifies the ugly course that harassment allegations usually take, even in the 21st century. Originally, the Army claimed that Kennedy never officially reported the alleged 1996 harassment incident until three months ago, shortly after Smith was recommended for promotion. Military authorities insinuated that the allegation was made as a way to get back or get even with Smith because of his promotion.
Later, after damage had already been done to Kennedy’s reputation, word trickled into the press that Kennedy had, in fact, reported the incident to her superiors, but had decided to keep the complaint informal and in house, possibly as a way to protect Smith’s reputation.
This is just one of several attempts made by military officials to discredit Kennedy. A pattern of blaming the victim, and punishing her (or him) for speaking up about mistreatment, seems to accompany almost every allegation of sexual misconduct in the workplace. And when the highest official in our land — our current president — breaks the law to cover up harassment allegations against him, it sets a poor example and a dangerous precedent. The implication is that just like in “the good old days,” the establishment can offer empty words to the abuse victim, slap the hand of the perpetrator, wink and be done with it!