The Confidante’s Dilemma

What to do if a co-worker who suffers sexual harassment asks you to keep it secret?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.
Thinking through a difficult workplace dilemma.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

On Tuesday, NPR editorial director Michael Oreskes became the latest media man to get sanctioned for sexual harassment, joining New Republic legend Leon Wieseltier and political journalist Mark Halperin. The trio adds to a metastasizing clump of alleged abusive men in power (or former power): Filmmaker James Toback. Producer Brett Ratner. Kevin Spacey. Harvey Weinstein. The claims surrounding this satyrs’ club vary—Oreskes is accused of kissing women who came to him for professional advice when he led the New York Times’ Washington bureau two decades ago; the allegations against Weinstein include rape. But the stories all share a common theme: Some people knew and never said anything. In Oreskes’ case, one person-who-knew was his deputy at the time, Jill Abramson, who told the Washington Post that she noticed her boss lavishing inappropriate attention on a young news aide in the 1990s. She said nothing because the victim “didn’t want to raise the issue.”

The wave of sexual harassment allegations against newsworthy men is churning up moral dilemmas for friends, colleagues, and bystanders. This Abramson detail exposes one of them: What do you do when a co-worker confides in you about the inappropriate behavior of a mutual co-worker, and begs you not to say anything? How do you weigh your officemate’s request for discretion against a company-wide need for reform?

One man I spoke to described working in an office in which two female employees came to him separately with complaints about another man in the firm. A relatively recent hire with limited power, he asked each of the women if they wanted him to speak to the business’s (male) boss. The women said no. The high-status alleged harasser possessed institutional sway and a reputation for retaliation. Now the co-worker wonders whether he should have broken those employees’ confidence and gone to HR anyway. Would that have been paternalistic, counterproductive, irresponsible—or the right thing to do?

Consider the case of Wieseltier, accused of intimidating and leching on female staffers at the New Republic over a 30-year career as literary editor. It seems from a cascade of reported pieces as though people at every level of the magazine would have seen Wieseltier’s predations if only they had cared to look. Maybe they could have done far more to counteract the misogynist dynamics the institutional star fostered. But missing from this narrative of (mostly) male failure is a complicated reality of colleagues approaching each other in confidence, to vent privately and in relative safety.

With a figurehead like Wieseltier, reasons to stay silent abound: The same fears about your own professional future that might cause you to hesitate also apply to the careers of the women you’re advocating for. As Michelle Cottle reports in her devastating Atlantic piece, the specter of “Bad Leon” kept New Republic employees docile and tolerant. His reach, his established and decades-long impunity, and the reportedly sexist office culture that flourished under both him and editor-in-chief Marty Peretz all made confronting the senior staffer (or complaining about him) a risky proposition, possibly as likely to tarnish the accuser as to harm the accused. If you are a colleague with an accurate read on such a toxic situation, you might feel reckless and cruel opening up your vulnerable co-worker to more abuse.

And even if you believe speaking out will help rather than backfire, telling a victim’s story against her express wishes smacks of re-violating the violated. According to trauma specialist Samantha Manewitz, healing from an experience like sexual harassment becomes much harder when you can’t assert what you do and don’t need during recovery. To throw a woman who wishes not to publicize her pain into an invasive HR situation seems like the wrong approach.

And yet. The kind of rot that ate at the New Republic’s foundations for three decades can’t thrive where employees are diligently calling out and uprooting sexual harassment. Maybe it is patronizing to bare a female co-worker’s secret “for her own good.” But what about encouraging her to step forward and organizing with other colleagues to make sure that she is not punished for doing so? What about voicing your general concerns, without naming names, to the HR department so that the alleged abuser can be monitored?

In many companies, employees in managerial roles are obligated to report claims of sexual harassment and assault. This bright-line directive siphons some of the agony from that decision-making process. Slate, for instance, requires supervisors to take concerns to HR; it further requires HR to investigate such allegations, even if instructed not to. Workers in nonmanaging roles don’t answer to the same standard, but best practices, according to the HR professional I spoke to, do dictate that they act on their colleagues’ stories. That could simply mean urging the alleged victim to approach her supervisor. Or it could mean talking to HR yourself, or filling out an anonymous complaint form.

Sexual harassment rarely occurs in a single, isolated incident; it unfolds over time, and in patterns. The goal of creating or preserving a safe office culture does not always map perfectly onto the goal of protecting an individual woman. In this sense, the bystander dilemma brings to life some of the elemental questions of moral philosophy. Are you on team Immanuel Kant, who believed that each human being should be treated as a sacred end-in-herself? Or are you on team John Stuart Mill (and HR)—the group that wants to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number?

One woman I spoke to recalls working in a newsroom in which she experienced repeated sexual remarks and touching from one of her male colleagues. This man held more power and seniority in the company, although he was not in her direct chain of command. She mentioned his overtures to her supervisor, but requested that the supervisor (also a woman) not say anything. This was because “we were weathering layoffs, weird cuts, new management” and she feared that “causing drama” would cost her her job. In reaching out to her manager, this woman sought personal support and a reality check; she hoped to confirm her inner assessment that the comments and handsiness weren’t normal. But with several years’ hindsight, she told me, she regrets soliciting her supervisor’s silence. “The guy faced no consequences,” she said, adding that she would have been “mortified” if her co-worker had confronted the man against her will, but “not angry.” In the end, she kept her job safe. But she—and possibly other female staffers— continued to endure the man’s unwanted advances.

Another woman I spoke to remembered a male colleague who “behaved grossly toward me at an after-work event.” She asked her officemate, who witnessed the upsetting comments, to keep the story under wraps. It wasn’t fear regarding her standing in the company that made her request silence, but that intensely female aversion to “making a big deal about something at work.” She was leery of seeming high-strung or humorless. “I know I would have diminished what happened if someone came to me and asked about it,” she says now. At the same time, this woman suspects that if the roles had been reversed—if she had observed her female co-worker being harassed—advocating for her would have felt like a foregone conclusion; to guard the secret would have felt difficult and wrong.

That is, of course, hindsight. In the moment, the right thing to do is not always so obvious, if there is one “right thing” at all. Situations that seem crystal clear from a distance can look impossibly blurry up close. And while a single story can appear fleeting, or random, the aggregate picture—an entire career of sexual predation, or an entire culture—makes an incontrovertible case for action.

“If I had to do it again, I would have told him to knock it off,” Abramson told the Post, almost 30 years after her colleague confided in her about Oreskes, who has since resigned from NPR. “I don’t really feel it was in a gray area in retrospect,” she said. “I should have stopped him.”