op-ed

Welcome To The Actions-Have-Consequences Era

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Joanne Butler Contributor
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The first Nobel Prize winner for literature, John Galsworthy, commented on the difference between “everybody knows” and “somebody tells.” Today there’s a tsunami of ‘somebody tells’ incidents about sexual harassment. That’s a good thing. Sexual harassment is more than a physical incident; it’s symptomatic of a poisoned work culture. Although I can’t claim to have been harassed, I’ve seen its deleterious effects.

Fresh out of graduate school, during my first week as a new employee at a federal agency, a female co-worker told me that to get ahead, I’d have to sleep with Mr. X. I had a sick feeling in my stomach.

Travel was the key. Before I went to grad school, I worked at another federal agency where managers openly joked about the women they hooked up with while visiting a contractor’s site in California. These gross guys must have assumed I understood this was merely a normal “perk” for project managers.

Later (post-grad school), it was a case of overseas travel. A (male) senior manager would choose a comely female professional from the agency’s ranks to “accompany” him on overseas official business. The agency had one female senior manager, but she either tolerated or ignored her peers’ activities. She couldn’t have been ignorant of what was going on, as the managers would gleefully tell tales of beach time in Rio, etc.

The bad-boy behavior stopped abruptly, but in an unusual way. Again, it was a case of a male manager choosing a female to “assist” him on his foreign trip to Country Z.  The “somebody tells” in this case was an African-American male who was the desk officer for Country Z.

It was obvious why the desk officer should have been chosen for trip, and equally obvious why he was not.

Before the trip took place, he filed a complaint with the EEO office. That lit a fire among the higher-ups, who ordered the senior manager to retire immediately.

The cultural shock to the system was palpable. Suddenly, actions had consequences.

One outcome was the retirement of a generation of wannabe Don Draper managers. They had viewed women employees as potential arm candy while on official travel.

Some managers were replaced by women, others by men, but the culture had changed — for the better.

Technically, none of this was sexual harassment. The California women (I assume), and (later) my agency’s female employees were consenting adults. But the workplace cultures were poisoned.

Although these events occurred a couple decades ago, recent revelations demonstrate we still need to change the workplace culture.

Sexual harassment “awareness days” and seminars are meaningless. They paper over deep-seated views and hidden activities regarding female employees.

As that desk officer (and the rest of us) learned long ago, the best way to achieve change is by demonstrating how bad actions have real and painful consequences.  Consider electric fences and wandering cattle, and you’ll know what I mean.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard, was a professional staff member (Republican) at the House Ways and Means Committee, and served in President George W. Bush’s administration. The Ghanaian poet, Kwesi Brew, has described her as ‘vibrant.’


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.