Sexual harassment: a victim's story

A fabricated claim of harassment has forever damaged Lionel Kohn's ability to trust the female staff he manages.

Yes, I've read Helen Garner's The first stone, and seen Michael Douglas' Disclosure. I even watch the occasional Ally McBeal episode. Is it just me or has the world gone crazy about sexual harassment? I can hazard a guess as to what Bill Clinton might say.

Given the publicity it gets, I'd have thought most educated, mature, aware male managers nowadays know what's politically acceptable and what's not. Except for Bill, of course.

I certainly don't come to the issue in ignorance. Didn't come, to be more accurate.

While the notion of harassment isn't foremost in my thinking, it's there nonetheless, waxing and waning into consciousness every now and then. Seldom too far below the surface. It has to be - I manage a group of women. Women well versed in union and other matters relating to employee rights. And I've done all the training this organisation offers for managers in terms of EEO, OH&S and the like.

Despite this backdrop of caution, education and what I might simply call common sense, it didn't stop one of my employees lodging an harassment allegation against me. Let's see, there was general harassment, and sexual harassment too, not to forget the worker's compensation claim for stress due to psychological injury. Caused by me, a male manager. That about covers what I had to contend with.

Interestingly, I'd always seen myself as a caring manager. Flexible working hours for staff - I'm talking very flexible here. Her working from home at times to meet her special needs. Participative decision making by the group. Negotiating preferred leadership styles with staff. Generally, putting my needs as manager second to get the best from them. And I was happy to do this because it worked. Transforming a mediocre group to a team of relatively high performers.

As I say, against this backdrop I found myself the defendant of charges of sexual and other harassment. Of course, the internal letter detailing the matter used the term "allegations". Being on the receiving end of the allegations, however, I felt that the word "charges" better captured and expressed the emotional and other responses I experienced.

Not only was there the internal investigation, with weeks turning into months, there was also the worker's compensation inquiry, which entailed a separate marathon half day interview with the insurer's psychologist.

Two grueling interviews - and yes that word does hit the mark - from which I was cleared both times, or as they say: the allegations were not proven or supported. That means I was cleared, yet the wording left a bad aura. As if doubts somehow remained - insufficient evidence perhaps. Or was I simply being paranoid?

The whole incident was a harrowing experience for me both as manager and as a man.

And just what was it all about? Well, that's the strange bit. I really don't know, even now when it's history. I still don't. In the months leading up to the episode, I had few interactions with this particular employee. By and large she was a committed worker, and as a result she enjoyed the autonomy warranted by her performance. On one project only was she below par. In addressing that deficiency, and using the best of my peoples' skills I hasten to add, off she went under doctor's certificates. Psychologically damaged, she argued, by me. So the story went - and far and wide, it seemed. So much for confidentiality!

Two charges, general harassment and sexual. It's the second I wish to focus on here, though as I say I was cleared on all counts. Mine is so typical of the many men's stories I hear of, or read about these days. She wasn't content with sticking to the facts and dealing with the issue at hand; no, she went for broke by including sexual harassment, as so commonly seems to happen nowadays. And it's so destructive.

It wasn't until I met with this organisation's grievance committee that I was presented with her evidences. An incident five years earlier, offensive cartoons and drawings, jokes at her expense about sums it up. None of which were true.

Under the legislation, people can claim harassment for simply feeling uncomfortable about something said, done or inferred. In other words, the perceived harassment need not be overt. The basic requirement is that you need only feel harassed. Interesting wording.

Back to the evidence. It was fabricated. Completely and unequivocally. Still I had to defend myself, and I do not use that term lightly either, because that's just what it felt like. A curious situation I found myself in, having to 'prove' something had not occurred. Exactly how does one go about disproving an allegation? Think about it!

Thankfully she left, perpetuating the story that I have ruined her life. In the end I won but then it never was about winning; more about just not losing. And it was a blessing to be rid of her and her difficult personality. My ordeal was worth it, just for that.

And truly, I wish her well. No malice, no grudges. I forgave her a long time ago. Hers isn't the life I would chose for myself, or for my daughters. Who knows, in her shoes, and given her world view, I might have acted just the same.

While my management style was vindicated - indeed, by a panel of experts - it nonetheless came at a price. I found myself a little less flexible with staff after that, more down the line. No longer championing the modern management ideals. In effect, I moved away - possibly just a tad - from the caring leader role of which I had been so proud. Hey, it made my life easier. But then I wasn't the ones missing out because of these changes.

But I lost too. The experience spooked me - like being stalked psychologically. I became less trusting.

In the end I put it to the Anti-Discrimination Board asking about the natural justice in all of it. I said that surely the legislation caters for my rights as well - me being the aggrieved manager - and asked whether it was simply that any of us, at any time, can make any allegations against anyone, for any reasons, based on any evidence, and get away with it.

Because I felt screwed to the wall by this employee. And the irony is that never once in all the time we worked together did she ever raise the issue of harassment with me, or my staff or my supervisor. Ever!

What could have been a win/win situation ended up polarising staff, effectively forcing them to take sides. For what? I read recently that reasonableness costs so little. I can just hear Bill saying Amen to that.

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