By now, I assume you all have read or at least heard about the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Fox Channel Host Gretchen Carlson against Fox CEO Roger Ailes. Since then, at least a half dozen other women have said that they, too, were harassed by Ailes.
When you heard about the allegations, which of the following responses comes closest to your immediate (visceral) reaction:
- This is but another example of a powerful man abusing his position to engage in vile sexual harassment. We have another serial harasser.
- Carlson never complained about harassment until her contract was not renewed. This is but another example of someone complaining about harassment after they don’t get what they want.
- I have no idea. I need to investigate the facts.
If you look at social media or listen to conversations about the case, you will hear a lot of people who “know” it happened or are “certain” it did not. I have not seen or heard too many say, “I have no idea; it needs to be investigated.”
Now, I return to you. If you are like most people, your visceral response was probably 1 or 2. What does that mean?
We hear a lot of talk about implicit bias. Effectively, we are talking about bias of which we may not be aware.
Here, we are talking about a different kind of bias. That is, our initial responses may reflect explicit bias based on our own experiences as employees or as professionals who investigate harassment complaints.
I acknowledge that my emotional response initially was not “3.” Initially, I was suspicious of the allegations based on timing—that would put me in camp #2.
Then, when I heard that there were at least a half dozen other women claiming harassment, my visceral response changed. Carlson spoke out only when she had nothing left to lose and others then spoke out, too. So, that put me in camp #1.
I am grateful that I am aware of my emotional reactions based on my experiences in evaluating harassment cases. If I am aware of my assumptions based on experience (bias), I can consciously avoid them and investigate the facts impartially without such assumptions. That puts me where I belong: camp #3.
Now, I turn to you and ask that you think about your reaction. It very well may reflect your own personal experience in the workplace, as an employee or as an HR professional in receiving and then investigating harassment claims.
It is quite human to learn from and develop assumptions (biases) based on experience. In fact, if our experiences do not inform our instincts, then we have a developmental problem.
But, we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions based on our experiences generally without carefully evaluating the facts of a specific case. Remember, each case is not about the broader societal issue but rather what happened in that particular case.
Think of your visceral reaction (instinct) to this case. That may reflect your bias. Now that you know it, be careful of it when you investigate complaints in your workplace.
Remember, every complainant is someone’s child, parent, partner, sibling or friend.
The same is true of every accused.
Both deserve a prompt, impartial and thorough investigation before conclusions are reached.