Why your colleagues know about sexual harassment – and don't speak out

When I heard rumours about a colleague and long-term friend, I reported them. This is what happened next. 

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Sex can be a wonderful thing. But a torrent of recent news about Hollywood, and the world of politics, has told us much about some of the less pleasant side: the abuses of power by men for sex, and the impact on their victims.

Another theme which has rightly received some attention has been the silence of others – people who knew or suspected that bad things were going on but did nothing. Sometimes such silence is apparently for self-serving reasons: for example, the Tory party whips using information as a form of leverage. In other cases there appears to be misplaced and excessive loyalty to the perceived interests of institutions (like the Labour party). But there are other reasons why people sometimes don’t speak out.

I am a fairly senior figure in quite a high-profile, public-facing organisation. Some readers may even have heard of me. But who I am is not really important. My experiences may be.

Earlier this year, I was made aware of problematic behaviour by a close colleague, and long-time friend, whom for the purposes of this article I will call Bill.

Bill always had something of a reputation as a “ladies man”. In retrospect, I may have been too flippant about that. I was forced to take things more seriously once I learned several things.

I was informed (directly by the other party, whom I also knew) about a longterm involvement between Bill and a woman. From what I heard, some of his behaviour was distinctly disturbing. But there was also a professional dimension, because they worked together. 

Over the course of several months, I became aware that Bill had at the very least a broader reputational problem. Prominent people in our sector, who knew of my association with him, used phrases like “dirty old man” and “disgusting person” directly to my face to describe him. One referred to his division of the organisation as the “Misogyny Unit”. Perceptions of Bill were clearly reflecting to some extent on his colleagues.

Bill’s increasingly tarnished reputation seemed to be linked to various rumours regarding his behaviour. One, which I tried to investigate discretely, was that he had sexually assaulted a woman. This turned out to be untrue (as far as I was able to ascertain). But there was plenty of other gossip, some of it relating to younger and potentially more vulnerable people who interacted with our organisation. Having already heard about conduct that was reckless and unprofessional, to me, some of these rumours seemed credible.

What, if anything, should I do about this? I felt caught in the middle of various professional and personal obligations. I tried to talk to Bill directly about the affair, but he simply looked embarrassed at being found out and was reluctant to discuss it further. I agonised for some time: probably too long, but I had a very strong sense of loyalty to someone with whom I had worked closely for years.

But I knew there had been at least some highly unprofessional behaviour, and that Bill’s reputation – whether or not wholly justified – was harming our organisation to some extent. I discussed the matter with my partner, who insisted that if a problem regarding Bill’s behaviour ever erupted I should not be in the position of having known there were concerns but kept quiet. Eventually, and after several sleepless nights, I asked for a confidential meeting with the head of our organisation, in which I explained the concerns I had.

What happened? I heard nothing for weeks. Then, out of the blue one day at work I found myself confronted by another colleague, a close friend of Bill and someone I had also long considered a friend. This colleague accused me of peddling gossip and demanded to know why I had spoken to our boss. (Ironically, I have always hated gossip whereas Bill relishes it and has sometimes mocked me for my lack of interest in it).

My request for confidentiality had clearly not been respected. I asked our boss directly how and why confidentiality had been breached – he brushed this off, and gave me the sense that I was making unnecessary trouble for having raised all these issues with him.

There have been no obvious consequences for Bill. He, it appears, is seen as useful to the organisation, and provided that there is no formal complaint against him that is all that seems to matter. That his reputation is damaging us collectively is something that our boss seems either not to understand or to care about.

I wish I could offer a more encouraging moral from my experiences. My immediate working environment has declined notably: I now have colleagues who barely communicate with me. Of course, any problems I have are as nothing compared with the experiences of Bex Bailey, Alison Goldsworthy or many others. I’ll survive: I’m senior enough, successful enough and tough enough to manage. But I shudder to think how more junior or vulnerable colleagues would have been treated in similar circumstances.

The behaviour of others placed me in a difficult situation, not one of my choosing. I tried to respond in a proper and appropriate manner. Indeed, I feel that I’m the only person involved in this situation who has behaved properly.

For this I have been treated as the one in the wrong and left feeling horribly exposed.

And people wonder why others don’t speak out.