Sexual Harassment: The Scarlet Letter

Workplaces are fraught with landmines,  and an allegation of sexual harassment is one of the big ones. It has the potential to destroy careers and do near-irreparable harm to an organization.

The mere mention of a sexual harassment allegation can be the modern day version of the scarlet letter for the victim as well as the alleged offender. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, a red letter “A” was emblazoned across Hester Prynne’s chest to identify her as an adulteress. It was society’s way of publicly shaming the offender.

As a society we have evolved. We no longer attach red “A”s to people’s chest but the effect — the public shaming — is no less painful.

 How we respond to sexual harassment in the workplace have also evolved. There are laws against it. And a growing number of women — and men — are no longer remaining silent when it occurs.

Two recent reports of separate allegations of sexual harassment in the Toronto Star, however,  demonstrate how the media can sometimes get it wrong in reporting on this very important and sensitive issue.

The main story in both the print and  online editions of the paper was the news that the former president of Penguin Canada, who is being sued for sexual harassment, admits to having a “flirtatious relationship” with a former colleague. She says there was a “campaign of harassment” culminmating with him forcing himself on her in a hotel room.

A seemingly lesser story in the same edition of The Star was about a 25-year-old female hospital worker who was sexually harassed and subjected to racial taunts in a “poisoned work enviroment.”

To its credit both stories appeared on the front page of The Star’s print and online editions. However, the Penguin story was given the prized spot above the fold. While the story about the young hospital worker appeared below the fold.

The Penguin story focuses on a three-page written defence by the book publisher’s former president against the statement of claim filed against him. At this point, it is a she-said-he-said story. The allegations have yet to be tested in court.

However, there are no ambiguities in the hospital worker story; she was sexually harassed and suffered horribly in the workplace.

 Unbeknownst to the hospital, an enterprising Toronto Star reporter waas asked to accompany the young woman as a “friend” to a briefing of the findngs by the hospital’s lead investigator.

It is clear from the investigation that the sexual harassment occured. In fact the problems started just nine days after the young woman started working at the hospital as a lab technologist.

A senior male co-worker who was assigned to train her, rubbed her shoulders suggestively in a darkened lab. The senior co-worker told her: “I wish you weren’t wearing a shirt or bra, that way I could give you a better massage.”

Like  Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, her co-workers attached the scarlett letter on this young woman. She asked for their help but instead she was isolated. At one point a senior HR manager suggested that she take assertiveness training. Her immediate boss said the offender was harmless. Among other things, co-workers refered to the young woman’s “evil persona.”

The question is: Which of these two stories ought to have been given greater prominence by the Toronto Star? The story about a high profile author and president of a major book publisher facing sexual harassment allegations or the story about a young woman who was obviously sexually harassed and left to hang out to dry by her supervisors and other colleagues?

The Star highlighted the Penguin Canada because it no doubt believed it was more salacious and would sell more papers.  The paper got it wrong. Instead, the hospital worker should have received above-the-fold treatment by the newspaper.

Both of these individuals — the young woman and the former president — have been branded with the scarlet letter of sexual harassment in the workplace.  

The hospital worker story is one of those rare teachable moments and the Toronto Star missed an opportunity to inform victims and employers about what can happen when one of these land mines explode in the workplace.

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