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Five lessons we can learn from the Cuomo debacle – and one reminder

Aug 26, 2021

          1. The rules haven’t changed; taking them seriously has.

Lesson 1 – rules that have been around for decades, that have been applied to most of the workforce are starting to be enforced against the powerful and privileged.

Cuomo’s “I didn’t realize the rules had changed” was not credible on its face. Truly, it’s like saying “sorry, I didn’t realize you might communicate via email, I was waiting for your letter in the mail.”

Cuomo touted the importance of enforcing rules about workplace harassment when it didn’t involve him. Cuomo understood the rules; what he failed to understand was that the rules actually applied to him.

The rule is not to make lewd suggestive comments to people at work, especially those with less power than you, and to never ever touch someone without their express permission (other than a handshake). It’s pretty simple. It’s been the rule for the last thirty years (at a minimum). The rules changed in the 1970’s or 1980’s, depending on how with it you were at the time. If Cuomo figured out how to use a computer, he could have figured out how not to harass women at work.

What has changed is that a good segment of the public now believes that these “dalliances” are not to be overlooked. More and more they expect leaders to do what they say; to not be above the law; to be role models; to actually care about their employees.  And at the same time a good segment of workers feel empowered to speak up.

          2. A fair and thorough investigation makes a difference.

Lesson 2 – employers and the public should allow for a truly unbiased investigation before drawing conclusions about contested conduct.

When someone is accused of sexual harassment, and disagrees with the allegations, there is a process that can and should be followed. It is tried and true and yet too often overlooked. The press may feel they can report on the “facts”, as they know them, and the public can sort it all out. The employer may feel they know the people involved and, in knowing them, can draw conclusions. But coming to conclusions without allowing both parties to be heard – to be interviewed and present evidence – is not a fair or appropriate process. A balanced and thorough investigation is.

What finally happened with the accusations against Cuomo is that someone, in this case the New York Attorney General, was empowered to do an investigation without interference. When an institution is willing to engage someone to do such an investigation, allowing the chips to fall as they may, they are providing such a process. Investigations should be done swiftly and with care. It benefits everyone involved in the dispute, the institution, and the public.

          3. Retaliating against people who come forward is often worse than the underlying behavior

Lesson 3 – the best, truly the only thing to do if accused of mistreating someone at work, is to step back and allow a complaint process to take place without interference.

It is not uncommon for people make allegations of harassment. The law and employer policies encourage complaints so that inappropriate behavior can be addressed immediately. Some complaints are about serious behavior and some complaints involve more minor stuff. Sometimes there are true misunderstandings. Occasionally there are false complaints. In the case of Cuomo, some of the complaints were significant but many were not. But there is one thing that the accused can do to make things worse – retaliate.

If Cuomo had not retaliated, and if he had followed lesson 4 (see below), he might have saved his job. At least he could have saved some semblance of a good reputation. But instead he smeared his accusers and tried to take action against them. This was more than bad form – it was illegal. Even if none of the allegations had been significant, his actions would have been violated the law. If retaliation for bringing complaints is allowed to occur, harassment will continue to flourish unabated. Calling out Cuomo’s retaliation and treating it as the very serious action it was, was an important part of the investigation that took place.

          4. Taking responsibility for your actions is under-rated.

Lesson 4 – much can be forgiven when someone truly understands the harm they have caused and genuinely apologizes for it. Cuomo never did this.

Apologies come in all shapes and sizes. It’s pretty easy to tell when they are heart felt. Anything that start with “I’m sorry if…” is not heartfelt. Rather, it should be “I’m sorry because…” The harm of harassment is as much, and often more, in the lack of institutional response as the underlying incident. In the case of leaders who harass, they are the institution. A response that is indicative of taking responsibility and endeavoring to truly change can help the healing process. It tells the target of that harassment their complaint was important and made a difference – that coming forward had a cost, but was worth it. The opposite of this is the feeling one gets when one is gaslighted.

          5. Not all sexual harassers are alike.

Lesson 5 – there is a lot of what we call harassment that takes place. Much of it is unintentional and may even be innocuous. Not so with the minority of harassment, which is done by bullies, is often very serious and is very harmful. Cuomo was a bully.

We tend to talk about sexual harassment as if it’s one thing. But it’s many things. It’s the person who forgets your name and calls you honey (eyeroll). It’s the guy who can’t help but telegraph that he thinks his co-worker looks pretty great (learn to keep it to yourself, please). It’s the newly minted boss who wants to try out a risqué joke (boring and out of touch). It’s the co-worker who can’t read social cues and thinks you being warm and friendly means you want a hug (what would make you think we have that close a relationship?). But sometimes it’s the bully who enjoys having power over people and seeing what he (and statistics tell us it is usually a he) can get away with. This leads to a more serious level of harassment. And this is what Cuomo was. Only a bully would threaten and abuse his power the way Cuomo did.

Many people who engage in harassing behavior can change. They can be taught to recognize what crosses a line and how to conduct themselves in a work setting. Bullies cannot.

It is helpful to distinguish between bullies – who engage in intentional harassment – from those who are acting out of ignorance or immaturity. We should go easy on those who don’t intend harm and make an effort to rehabilitate them. Who amongst us can say we’ve never harmed anyone due to ignorance or impetuousness? But we should not go easy on bullies. They will likely not change and need to be dealt with swiftly by eliminating them from the workplace. Being able to tell them apart is crucial. See lesson 2.

Lastly, a reminder – power corrupts.

We all have biases and one of them is to give more credence and deference to people with power. We have learned that women close to Cuomo enabled his misdeeds and that he used even Times’ Up to validate him. This is a powerful reminder to anyone close to power or the people who wield it to take a step back, do a gut check and be willing to say no, even if it means a loss of money or status.


Managing Partner, OIG