Vito Lopez Scandal Shows How Little Has Changed With Sexual Harassment At Work

I was going to write a post last week after The New York Times reported that New York Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic leader and longtime political power broker there, had been stripped of his committee chairmanship, barred from employing young people, and censured after an Assembly committee determined that he had sexually harassed two female employees this summer, but frankly I was too disgusted by what I read. Stories of a powerful man, groping staff members in the backseat of a car was more than I could stomach.

As if things couldn’t get worse, there was the announcement of Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, regarding the removal of Mr. Lopez as chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, and the announcement that Mr. Lopez would be barred from employing interns or anyone under the age of 21. (Let’s hope the twenty-two year olds in his employ have guardian angels hovering over them.) Yet, no call for his resignation.

And now the Times has reported that five additional women described in interviews "an atmosphere of sexual pressure and crude language in his office, with frequent unwanted advances by him and others, requests for provocative dress, personal questions about their boyfriends, and fears of reprisals if they complained. By their accounts, Mr. Lopez told some women "not to wear bras to work."

I’m no longer sickened. I’m angry. The year is 2012 and women and men are still subject to hostile work environments because some people simply refuse to behave. They get to stay while the victims have to leave.

I’ve personally experienced what it’s like to be sexually harassed. At first you are in disbelief. You cannot believe that someone just did what they did to you. You then feel embarrassment, even though you’ve done nothing to bring this upon yourself. Then you tell no one, for fear you will be the one on trial.

As a former HR Director, I have investigated my share of sexual harassment claims over the years. The stories are often similar, whether they are based on a hostile work environment or an individual who feels they have been sexually harassed. The one thing that never changes is the personal damage that is done when someone goes through this type of experience.

I’ve yet to investigate a claim where it was found that the victim actually made up her (yes, most claims were filed by women) story, although I’m sure there are some. I’ve been a guest on The O’Reilly Factor, discussing sex in the workplace with Bill O’Reilly, who shortly thereafter was accused of such behavior by the producer who booked me on the show. (I guess Bill wasn’t really listening to what I had to say.) For what it’s worth, I’ve conducted the Massachusetts mandatory sexual harassment training in organizations where everyone but me knew the CEO was the one doing all the harassing, yet he wasn’t in the room.

What strikes me is that little has changed in terms of sexual harassment in the workplace. And I doubt much will change in the future, unless enough people start getting angry. I hope enough men and women will read this post and get mad. Mad enough not to turn their backs when they see co-workers or even the boss crossing the line. Angry enough to tell those who are harassing them to knock it off.

Let’s hope the people of New York get really pissed off and that an announcement of Lopez’s departure is soon forthcoming. When is enough, enough people?

—Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the president of Human Resource Solutions (www.yourhrexperts.com) and author of the forthcoming, The Magnetic Workplace (Nicholas Brealey, 2013) and Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, a Washington Post Top-5 Leadership pick. Sign up to receive a complimentary subscription to Roberta's monthly newsletter, HR Matters.

[Image: Aerogondo2 via Shutterstock]

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